Thursday, April 19, 2018

New Jersey Supreme Court Says Grants To Churches Violate State Constitution

In Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, (NJ Sup.Ct., April 18, 2018), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that historic preservation grants to 12 churches (totaling $4.6 million) violate the Religious Aid Clause of the New Jersey Constitution.  That clause (Art. I, Sec. 3) provides that no person shall be obliged to pay taxes for building or repairing any church. The court concluded that there is no implied exception to this prohibition for historical preservation.

The Court went on to hold that this interpretation does not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution:
The [U.S. Supreme Court's] holding of Trinity Lutheran does not encompass the direct use of taxpayer funds to repair churches and thereby sustain religious worship activities. See 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.3. We therefore find that the application of the Religious Aid Clause in this case does not violate the Free Exercise Clause.
Justice Solomon filed a concurring opinion:
The majority concludes that the present case exceeds the scope of Trinity Lutheran since Morris County’s taxpayer-funded grants “went toward ‘religious uses.’”... However, that conclusion ignores New Jersey’s separate and substantial government interest at stake in this case -- historical preservation. I believe that had Morris County’s program been applied in a fundamentally neutral manner, the Religious Aid Clause could not bar funding to an otherwise qualified religious institution.
FFRF issued a press release announcing the decision.  Daily Record reports on the decision.