The Freedom From Religion Foundation is appealing a constitutionally dubious New Jersey judgment that allows for taxpayer funding of churches.
In January, a New Jersey state court ruled that tax dollars could be utilized to repair or maintain churches, despite a state constitutional provision barring such use. FFRF has asked the New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division to overturn this opinion and uphold the state's constitution.
FFRF and member David Steketee filed suit in late 2015 against Morris County, challenging public grants of tax dollars to repair or maintain churches. FFRF, with Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, contested more than $4.5 million in grants to churches since 2012 by the board's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. FFRF specifically challenged $1.04 million in allotments to Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow "continued use by our congregation for worship services," and allotments to St. Peter's Episcopal Church to ensure "continued safe public access to the church for worship."
FFRF contends the grants clearly violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution that guarantees: "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."
In its Notice of Appeal, FFRF states that it will ask the appellate court whether the trial court erred "in holding that Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, which prohibits the use of tax revenue to build or repair any churches or places of worship, is not violated when a municipality gives tax revenue to churches with active congregations to repair church buildings as part of an Historic Preservation Trust Fund program."
In her opinion last month, N.J. Superior Court Judge Margaret Goodzeit recognized "FFRF's mission and its endeavor to promote a healthy separation of church and state. Without organizations like the FFRF, one check that keeps the balance even disappears." Despite this nod to FFRF's important work, the court dropped the ball by holding that Morris County taxpayers can be forced to support churches, says FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.
The court provided what FFRF deemed "scattershot justifications," such as claiming the state has a "long history [since 1990] of making historic preservation grants to active houses of worship." But an illegal practice does not become legal just because it has gone unchallenged for a few decades.
FFRF is confident that the appeals court will uphold New Jersey taxpayers' right to not be forced to fund religion, churches and worship.
"The appellate court will recognize the strong constitutional logic of our position," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The good citizens of New Jersey — of any or no faith — should not be compelled to dole out hard-earned tax money to Christian churches."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with more than 27,000 members across the country, including 500-plus in New Jersey.
The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne are co-counsel.