FFRF stops New Jersey grants to repair churches (March 4, 2019)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and member David Steketee filed a lawsuit Dec. 1, 2015, in New Jersey state court against Morris County and county officials, challenging public grants of tax dollars to repair or maintain churches. FFRF with Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, are contesting grants to churches by the board’s Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Since 2012, the board has awarded 55% of its total Trust Fund assets to churches—more than $5.5 million. FFRF is specifically challenging $1.04 million in allocations to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow “continued use by our congregation for worship services,” and allotments to the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church that would ensure “access to the church for worship, [and] periods of solitude and meditation during the week.” The grants violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, guaranteeing: “nor shall any 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.”

The lawsuit was handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel and Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne served as co-counsel. FFRF v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Case No. C-12089-15 was in the Chancery division of Somerset County in New Jersey state court. The judge assigned to the case was Margaret Goodzeit.

The Superior Court ruled on Jan. 9, 2017 against FFRF’s challenge, contending the controlling case involved educational grants rather than historic preservation grants. However, Goodzeit praised FFRF’s “mission and it endeavor to promote a healthy separation of church and state.” FFRF and its plaintiff appealed the decision to New Jersey’s Superior court Appellate Division in February 2017. The New Jersey Supreme Court accepted the case on direct appeal. 

On April 18, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled in FFRF’s favor. “We find that the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches, and that Morris County’s program ran afoul of that longstanding provision,” the Court stated. It agreed with FFRF’s central contention that not being taxed to support a church is a central issue of religious freedom of conscience.

The defendants attempted to move the case to federal court, but the New Jersey District Court agreed with FFRF that the defendants did not have any grounds to move the case and remanded it back to the New Jersey state court.

Before the New Jersey Supreme Court

United States Supreme Court

Morris County, defended by the Catholic Becket Fund, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the victory and overrule the New Jersey Supreme Court on September 19, 2018. FFRF will be represented by renowned legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky in that appeal.

Freedom From Religion Foundation