Written by Don Byrd

Government grants used to repair twelve (12) churches in Morris County, New Jersey violated the state constitution’s ban on aid to religion, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled earlier today. And that ban, the Court held, is not in conflict with the U.S. Constitution.

The Religious Aid Clause in 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, contrary to what he believes to be right or has deliberately and voluntarily engaged to perform.” That provision, the Court emphasized, has “for more than 240 years banned the use of public funds to build or repair any place of worship,” regardless of the government’s intent.

From 2012 to 2015, the churches, all of which maintain active congregations, were awarded more than $4 million in government grants to repair and restore church structures as a part of a historic preservation program. While the U.S. Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran Church disallowed the exclusion of churches from certain neutral grant programs, the New Jersey court highlighted the fact that here the funds were specifically used for religious purposes. Accordingly, the Trinity Lutheran Church decision did not require the state to allow the church grants.

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

This case does not involve the expenditure of taxpayer money for non-religious uses, such as the playground resurfacing in Trinity Lutheran. The appeal instead relates to grants that sustain the continued use of active houses of worship for religious services and finance repairs to religious imagery. In our judgment, those grants constitute an impermissible religious use of public funds.

The holding of Trinity Lutheran does not encompass the direct use of taxpayer funds to repair churches and thereby sustain religious worship activities. We therefore find that the application of the Religious Aid Clause in this case does not violate the Free Exercise Clause.

The court declined to address the question of whether the grants to churches would also violate the Establishment Clause of the federal Constitution, since the grants were clearly unlawful under the state Constitution.