By Don Byrd, BJC Blogger
An appeals court in New Jersey ruled that capital improvement grants awarded to the Princeton Theological Seminary and Beth Medrash Govoha (a yeshiva) are unlawful because the state funds will be used in support of religious instruction. Even if the U.S. Constitution may permit such funding, the court ruled, the state “has a rich tradition” of protecting individual rights “more broadly” than federal law requires.
Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution states that “no person shall 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 … .” Plaintiffs argued successfully that because the seminary and the yeshiva are sectarian institutions, the constitutional provision disallows the state grants.
In the opinion, the court described the importance of a 1978 New Jersey Supreme Court case, Resnick v. East Brunswick Township Board of Education. In Resnick, the plaintiffs challenged a school’s practice of allowing religious organizations, along with other local groups, to rent public school facilities below cost. In the decision in this case, the court referred to the Resnick opinion and noted it said that particular provision of the state constitution should not be carried to an extreme “and the State need not withhold police or fire protection because of a property’s sectarian use.” The court also noted that Resnick did not provide a further analysis, but the court repeated Resnick’s holding that “the state constitution does require that religious organizations be singled out among nonprofit groups in general as being ineligible for certain benefits which are partly subsidized by tax-generated funds … ” (emphasis added in the new decision).
The court said that “it was the sectarian nature of the groups renting the space for such instruction that was of primary concern” for them to strike down the subsidized arrangement.
At first glance, it may seem as if government funding for building improvements, if awarded through a religiously neutral process, would not pose a threat to church-state separation. In fact, awarding money directly to sectarian institutions for use on facilities that further their religious mission does undermine the wall of separation.
As the BJC’s Brent Walker said in a 2013 column, “Simply put, we do not allow taxpayer dollars to build churches; we should not allow taxpayer dollars to be used to rebuild churches either.”