The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is considering arguments made by Americans United that state and local grant money should not be used to restore church facilities.
The state high court heard arguments on Sept. 7 in Caplan v. Town of Acton, a suit AU filed in July 2016 on behalf of 13 Acton taxpayers who objected to $100,000 in taxpayer money that was granted to Acton Congregational Church for repairs of stained glass windows with religious imagery, including a large window depicting Jesus. The money would also pay for a master plan for extensive renovation of the church building.
The lawsuit asserts that the historic preservation grants to the church violate the Massachusetts constitution’s “no-aid” clause forbidding tax money from being used to support religious institutions.
“If these words mean anything, they mean the government cannot write a check to help an active house of worship,” said attorney Douglas Mishkin, according to The Associated Press (AP). Mishkin is an attorney for the national law firm Venable LLP that is providing representation on behalf of AU.
The lawsuit notes that not only is Acton allowing public money to be used to restore a church building, but that the money is also intended to aid a church congregation. In its application for the funds, the church expressed a need to draw in more members amid financial problems.
“The church pleaded for it as almost an existential matter: We need it to continue doing what we’re doing,” Mishkin told the court, according to the AP.
The town’s attorney argued that a building’s ownership and purpose shouldn’t matter to a government program aimed at historic preservation, but several justices expressed concerns about church-state separation.
“Are we getting an excessive entanglement of church and state here?” Justice Scott Kafker asked.
Chief Justice Ralph Gants and others questioned whether it would spark claims of religious discrimination if the buildings of certain faiths are deemed “validly historic” and receive grants while the buildings of other faiths don’t.
It’s not known when the court will issue its opinion. The Supreme Judicial Court was hearing the case on appeal after a lower court denied AU’s request for a preliminary injunction to freeze the funding while the merits of the case are argued.