The Supreme Court of New Jersey this morning issued an opinion striking down taxpayer grants for the repair and maintenance of houses of worship deemed historic. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU of New Jersey and the national ACLU said the court made the right call.
“Historical preservation is a worthy goal, but it doesn’t justify violating the constitution and individuals’ religious liberty,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “Public funds should support buildings that can benefit all members of a community equally, not houses of worship that are used primarily by members of one particular faith.”
“This a big win for the religious freedom of state taxpayers, who shouldn’t have to foot the bill for church construction and religious worship services,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
Since 2012, Morris County has distributed more than $4.5 million in tax revenue to a dozen active churches through a historical preservation program. These grants are in direct conflict with the Religious Aid Clause in New Jersey’s state constitution, which proclaims that no resident can be compelled to pay taxes for “building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship.”
Americans United, joined by ACLU-NJ and the national ACLU, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the lawsuit, Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and Luchenitser presented arguments before the New Jersey high court.
“The Religious Aid Clause has been a part of New Jersey’s history since the 1776 Constitution,” observed the court in today’s opinion. “The clause guarantees that ‘[n]o person shall … be obliged to pay … taxes … for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry.’ The clause reflects a historic and substantial state interest. We find that the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches, and that Morris County’s program ran afoul of that longstanding provision.”
“This decision makes a powerful statement: our taxpayer funds should not go to support religious worship,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Awarding state grant money to refurbish active houses of worship would have undermined that fundamental constitutional principle.”
Americans United Executive Director Rachel Laser hailed the decision: “Morris County officials might have had good intentions, but no American should be compelled to pay taxes to support someone else’s religion. This is an important ruling that protects both the religious freedom of taxpayers and the integrity of houses of worship.”
Americans United and the ACLU are awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court of New Jersey in a similar case that challenges $11 million in grants that were awarded by the state to two divinity schools. AU and the ACLU filed ACLU of New Jersey v. Hendricks in 2013 on behalf of three New Jersey taxpayers and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey. The case was argued the same day as FFRF v. Morris County.
The Americans United-ACLU amicus brief in FFRF v. Morris County was drafted by Luchenitser, Barocas, Mach, ACLU-NJ cooperating counsel Frank Corrado 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.