A year after the Freedom From Religion Foundation won a resounding victory halting millions in tax dollars flowing unconstitutionally to repair churches in Morris County, N.J., a judge has finally ruled that the state/church watchdog and its attorneys are entitled to attorneys’ fees.
FFRF and its local member David Steketee filed suit in December 2015 seeking to stop Morris County from issuing further historic preservation grants to churches after it awarded $4.6 million in tax dollars to repair 12 churches. More than half of its total trust fund assets had been bestowed on churches, including $1.04 million in allocations to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow “continued use by our congregation for worship services.”
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 complicated case, with many judicial maneuverings, resulted in a strong unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court in April 2018, ruling the public funding of churches unconstitutional.
The county sought to appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied its petition in March 2019. Despite this resounding loss at the country’s highest court level, the county then filed an outrageous request in federal court in April 2019, not only seeking to enjoin the plaintiffs from recovering attorneys' fees, but also to resume the unconstitutional grant program. The district court granted FFRF’s motion to dismiss the county’s legal request in December 2019.
Finally, the Superior Court of New Jersey has ordered a total of $217,949.15 to FFRF’s attorneys, including $124,687.50 to outside counsel Paul Grosswald and $28,875 to constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who defended FFRF at the Supreme Court level. FFRF was reimbursed the remainder for the work of its staff attorneys Andrew L. Seidel and Ryan Jayne. The case was unusually complex, progressing through five different courts.
FFRF’s win ultimately may save New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars, even hundreds of millions over the next decade, since the grants to churches may have proceeded in a similar vein in all 21 counties.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation notes that its litigation was a public benefit that vindicates the public policy of upholding religious liberty and freedom. FFRF thanks its activist plaintiff David Steketee and able attorneys for their work.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog comprised of mostly nonreligious 32,000 members nationwide, including 600-plus in New Jersey.