Written by Don Byrd

State law protecting the separation of church and state likely forbids a historic preservation grant issued for the purpose of preserving the stained glass window of a church sanctuary, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled last week, overturning a trial court’s ruling. The Court issued an injunction halting the payment. A separate grant to fund a study of the church building’s integrity, was remanded back to the trial court for more factual discovery. 

At issue is a provision in the Massachusetts Constitution barring the “grant, appropriation or use of public money . . . for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society.”  The court ruled that, in light of the anti-aid amendment, “a grant of public funds to an active church warrants careful scrutiny.”

Applying that scrutiny, the court determined that the grant for the stained glass window would substantially aid the church in carrying out its essential religious function. Here is an excerpt from that portion of the opinion:

The church was candid in its grant applications, explaining that — faced with declining membership and contributions — it would need the town’s “help” in order to preserve its buildings while also “offering the congregation what draws them to their church.” . . . [T]he grants would help defray planning and restoration costs that the church would otherwise have to shoulder on its own, allowing the money saved to be used to support its core religious activities. As the church indicated in its grant applications, budgetary constraints have led it to make difficult choices between “capital improvement projects” on the one hand and “programs and personnel” on the other. These grants would allow the church to have both, in effect “underwrit[ing]” its essential function as an active house of worship.

As for the window itself, the court explained why it could not be dismissed as a mere external improvement to the church building.

The stained glass window is illustrative of the fragility of the interior-exterior distinction, and of the extent to which historic preservation of the building is interwoven with religious doctrine. Although it is an “exterior” feature, in that it is open to public view, its inclusion in a church building is as much a religious choice as an aesthetic one — especially where, as here, the windows have an expressly religious message.

The court also noted that the grant infringes on taxpayers’ liberty of conscience by spending government funds on preserve worship space. Furthermore, it presents “a risk of government entanglement with religion” because of the restrictions placed on the church by the historic preservation award.

Didn’t the U.S. Supreme Court rule on a taxpayer funding case not so long ago? Yes. In Trinity Lutheran, the Court ruled that a state cannot – out of church-state concerns – exclude a church from a playground improvement grant simply because it is a religious entity. Here, the Massachusetts Supreme Court explained why this case is different.

We do not interpret the Massachusetts anti-aid amendment to impose a categorical ban on the grant of public funds to a church “solely because it is a church.” Rather, under our three-factor test, whether a church can receive such a grant depends on the grant’s purpose, effect, and the risk that its award might trigger the risks that prompted the passage of the anti-aid amendment. Such an analysis would surely not bar the grant of public funds to a church preschool to provide a safer surface for its playground.

For more on this case, see the Boston Globe’s coverage here.