Massachusetts’ top court ruled March 9 that the government can’t spend tax dollars to renovate the religious features of a house of worship.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, ruling in a case brought by Americans United on behalf of 13 taxpayers, reversed a lower court decision that had allowed the aid to stand. The state high court ordered a preliminary injunction against using public money to restore Acton Congregational Church’s stained-glass windows that feature religious imagery. It sent the case back to the lower court for further scrutiny of whether Acton officials could use a statewide historic preservation grant program to fund any improvements to houses of worship.

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

The case, Caplan v. Town of Acton, was brought by Americans United, in partnership with attorneys Douglas Mishkin and Joshua Cumby of the Venable law firm, on behalf of the taxpayers and was spurred by concerns from AU’s Massachusetts Chapter. The case 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.

Officials in the town of Acton, a community of about 22,000 residents that’s located 21 miles north of Boston, wanted to give $100,000 worth of grant money to a church for restoration of stained-glass windows with religious imagery and a “Master Plan” to evaluate the restoration needs of the church itself and two other church-owned properties.

Americans United pointed out that the church has an active congregation that could pay for its repairs. AU also noted that in its grant request, church officials conceded that they wanted taxpayer funding so that they could divert some of the church’s money to religious programming.

“People should not be compelled to contribute to a church to which they do not belong,” Ronal Madnick, president of the Massachusetts Chapter and a member of AU’s Board of Trustees, told Church & State in 2016. “Every Acton taxpayer who wishes to support churches because of their historic value to the community is free to contribute. If a church needs money to preserve or restore its buildings, it should raise that money from its own members.

“Government should not pick and choose which churches to support,” Madnick continued. “Allowing these grants to proceed will only lead to more requests for funds by other houses of worship, and the town or city will be inviting accusations of religious favoritism if those requests are denied.” (See “Massachusetts Mistake,” September 2016 Church & State.)

AU is hopeful that Massachusetts courts ultimately will agree and stop Acton from allowing taxpayer money to fund any aspect of renovations at houses of worship.

“We understand that these long-standing houses of worship are part of Massachusetts’ history,” said Eric Rothschild, AU’s senior litigation counsel. “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.”

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