Mar 09, 2018

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today issued a ruling reversing a decision that allowed taxpayer aid for restoration of a church in Acton, Mass. Americans United for Separation of Church and State hailed the decision as an important affirmation of religious freedom for all.

“Today is a good day for religious freedom in Massachusetts,” said Rachel Laser, executive director of Americans United. “Money taken from the taxes of all citizens should go to funding projects for the public good, not religious imagery in houses of worship.”

Added Laser, “In the United States, houses of worship have long relied on private donations to grow and prosper. This decision affirms that great tradition and reminds us that the independence and integrity of religion are best preserved when government money does not fund houses of worship.”

The case, Caplan v. Town of Acton, was brought by Americans United on behalf of 13 Massachusetts taxpayers. It challenged the town’s decision to use the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act, through which communities can provide government grants to private landowners for the restoration of historic buildings, to restore houses of worship.

The case came about after the town of Acton decided to give Community Preservation grants for improvements to one church that it deems historic, even though it has an active congregation. The grants funded restoration of stained-glass windows with religious imagery, and a “Master Plan” to evaluate the restoration needs of the church itself and two other properties that the church owns.

The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the plaintiffs had established their right to a preliminary injunction barring funding to restore the stained-glass windows. The parties will return to the lower court for further proceedings regarding the “Master Plan” grant.

Observed the court in its ruling, “The self-described mission of the church here is ‘to preach and teach the good news of the salvation that was secured … through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.’ The proposed grants would be used to renovate the main church building, where the church conducts its worship services, and its stained glass windows, which feature explicit religious imagery and language. For town residents who do not subscribe to the church's beliefs, the grants present a risk that their liberty of conscience will be infringed, especially where their tax dollars are spent to preserve the church's worship space and its stained glass windows.”

In July 2016, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit on behalf of 13 Acton taxpayers who object to having their tax dollars spent on rehabilitating a church. AU argues that the anti-aid amendment of the Massachusetts Constitution forbids direct government aid for restoration of places of worship.

Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Eric Rothschild said, “We understand that these long-standing houses of worship are part of Massachusetts’ history. But the constitutional principle of separation of religion and government, which protects all citizens’ religious freedom, is an even more fundamental part of its history and its values. The court’s decision today clearly reflects that.”

The case was litigated pro bono by Douglas B. Mishkin and Joshua Cumby of the law firm Venable LLP, together with Rothschild, AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.