A county in New Jersey is appealing a court decision that says repairing furnaces or broken plumbing in historic churches is “religious” and grants cannot be used on the fixes.
Morris County is suing to use grant funds to pay for repairs and preservation projects at historic churches. Under the ruling, the grants cannot be used for historic churches.
The New Jersey state Supreme Court said in its ruling in April that the grants could not go to religious “activities,” and defined those activities as basic repairs.
“The churches are not being denied grant funds because they are religious institutions; they are being denied public funds because of what they plan to do — and in many cases have done: use public funds to repair church buildings so that religious worship services can be held there,” New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the decision.
However, according to WND, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2017 said that churches could not be barred from programs that are available to the public because of religion. The court decided that excluding churches would violate the First Amendment.
“Time does not discriminate,” said Diana Verm, a legal counsel at the Becket Fund, the firm representing the county. “It takes its toll on all our historic structures, secular and religious alike. The county should not be forced to discriminate by favoring secular sites in its preservation efforts.”
According to the Becket Fund, one of the state’s earliest grants went to the 1850 Solomon Wesley Church, a church that served freed slaves.
“In Morris County, we want to preserve all of our historical sites, including our magnificent houses of worship, some of which date back to the 1700s and were designed by the leading architects of their time,” said Doug Cabana, the freeholder director of Morris County. “Preserving the character and beauty of our county is a critical element of the county’s cultural and economic success.”
In the past, the grant has been awarded to libraries, cemeteries, school buildings and other houses of worship, although in those cases, repairs were restricted to exterior and structural repairs only.