Court: NJ taxpayers won’t have to foot huge church repair bills
The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a 7-0 decision today, upheld the state Constitution’s prohibition of the use of taxpayers’ funds for ‘building or repairing any church or churches’.
The decision was a major victory for the Freedom From Religion Foundation and FFRF member David Steketee, above, who filed a lawsuit in late 2015 against the county, challenging public grants of millions of tax dollars for the repair and maintenance of churches.
According to an FFRF statement just issued, the state high court’s ruling:
Corrected a lower court’s shocking refusal to apply the state Constitution’s ban.
The FFRF and Steketee originally challenged more than $5.5 million in funding to churches since 2012 by the Historic Preservation Trust Fund. The lawsuit specifically challenged $1.04 million in allotments to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, above, which, in the words of the church, would allow:
Continued use by our congregation for worship services.
The lawsuit also challenged funds handed to St Peter’s Episcopal Church to ensure:
Continued safe public access to the church for worship.
All of the churches that received the grants have active congregations.
The FFRF contended that the grants violate the unambiguous command of Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution that says:
Nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right.
This taxpayer protection predates the creation of the United States and was seen by Thomas Jefferson and other Founders as an essential guarantee to prevent the government from establishing religion and forcing citizens to support churches or religions in which they disbelieve.
The lower court ruling claimed an unprecedented exception to this admirably clear command, holding that Morris County was justified in ignoring this constitutional mandate because the funds were part of a historic preservation programme.
Fortunately, the state’s top court has corrected this mistake, overruling the trial court and holding that the New Jersey Constitution means exactly what it says.
The Supreme Court stated:
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.
It agreed with the FFRF’s central contention that not being taxed to support a church is a central issue of religious freedom of conscience.
The FFRF said it is elated at the constitutionally correct decision.
Said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor:
It’s shocking that it took a trip to the New Jersey Supreme Court to enforce such a plain constitutional command. New Jersey taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief that their constitutional religious liberty rights have been protected.
The FFRF said it cannot emphasise enough the significance of the NJ Supreme Court decision.
FFRF constitutional attorney Andrew L Seidel said:
This is not just a win for secular citizens, but for every New Jersey taxpayer. Governments in New Jersey cannot force Muslims to bankroll temples and yeshivas, compel Jews to subsidize Christian churches and Catholic schools, force Christians to fund mosques and madrassas or nonbelievers to support any religion. It’s a win for all.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with more than 33,000 members across the country, including 500-plus in New Jersey.
The FFRF extended its gratitude to plaintiff David Steketee, who has vigorously fought to uphold the rights of Morris County taxpayers since before this case was filed. The lawsuit was handled by attorney Paul S Grosswald.
Seidel and Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne were co-counsel.
• In its 2015 budget, the UK government allocated a further £40-million to support “vital” roof repairs in Listed Places of Worship over the the following two years.
The lion’s share of this money went to the Church of England as it is responsible for maintaining 45 percent of the grade I listed buildings in the country. At the time of the allocation, the C of E Church had a surplus of £4-billion in the kitty.