MORRIS, NJ — An interpretation of Separation of Church and State has led the State Supreme Court of New Jersey to rule that Morris County's practice of giving historic preservation grants to local churches is against the state constitution.
Justice Stuart Rabner wrote that the historic preservation grants, which are taxpayer-funded, violate the Religious Aid Clause of the state constitution.
"Here, the County awarded $4.6 million to twelve churches to repair active houses of worship -- from roofs to bell towers, from stained glass windows to ventilation systems. The use of public funds to pay for those repairs violated the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause," Rabner wrote.
The Religious Aid Clause of the state constitution reads: "[no] 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 or has deliberately and voluntarily engaged to perform."
The Board of Chosen Freeholders argued in the capacity of their role which oversees the grant program, that the grants were meant to preserve historical and architectural aspects of the church, not the practice of religion.
"The [Religious Aid] clause does not ask about the governing body's intent -- that is, whether the authorities meant to fund repairs to churches, to preserve history and promote tourism, or both," Rabner said.
The Board of Chosen Freeholders was sued by the Wisconsin based non-profit Freedom From Religion Foundation and David Steketee, a member of the group and a Morris County resident. The Somerset County court first ruled in favor of the Freeholders in 2017 before the state Supreme Court took up the case.
Over $11 million dollars was awarded between 2012 and 2015 to restore buildings, towers, windows, and other items on a total of twelve different Christian churches.
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