The Freedom From Religion Foundation and its member David Steketee filed a lawsuit Dec. 1 in New Jersey state court suing the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders and other officials. The suit challenges public grants of tax dollars to churches to repair or maintain places of worship.
Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, is contesting grants to churches by the board's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Since 2012, the board has awarded more than 55% of its total Trust Fund assets to churches — more than $5.5 million. It's believed that 2014 and 2015 grants haven't yet been fully disbursed.
FFRF and Steketee are specifically challenging:
Allotments to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, which has been allocated more than $1.04 million in public funds since 2012. The church's 2013 construction grant application specifically notes that funding would allow "continued use by our congregation for worship services."
Allotments to the St. Peter's Episcopal Church. Its 2014 grant application states that a distribution from the fund would ensure "continued safe public access to the church for worship, [and] periods of solitude and meditation during the week."
The board didn't respond to FFRF's February 2015 complaint letter about the grants. Steketee testified June 24 before the board and again on July 8 asking it to follow the federal and state constitutions and discontinue the grants. Freeholder Hank Lyon has also objected to the practice.
The grants violate plaintiffs' rights under 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."
These grants deprive Steketee of his constitutional rights, also in violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c).
"Although preserving historic Morris County buildings is an appropriate use of taxpayer funds, the New Jersey Constitution must trump any other considerations regarding the
distribution of public funds to churches, places of worship, or ministries," FFRF's legal complaint alleges.
The plaintiffs seek a declaration from the Superior Court of New Jersey, chancery division of Morris County, that grants of taxpayer funds to churches, places of worship and ministries disbursed within the past two years violate the New Jersey Constitution. They seek a preliminary injunction, later to be made permanent, requiring the defendants to rescind the challenged grants and enjoin them from offering such grants to churches in the future. Nominal and actual damages are sought for Steketee, and the plaintiffs seek attorneys' fees.
"It was an axiom when our secular republic was founded that no citizen 'shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,' to use the historic words of Thomas Jefferson," noted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Tax dollars should not be subsidizing religious worship. That's what many immigrants to this land came here to escape."
The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Diane Uhl Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne are co-counsel.
FFRF also thanks its former Legal Fellow Katherine Paige for her work on the case.