Historic churches in New Jersey can't use grant money for repairs and restoration, state Supreme Court rules

Morris County in New Jersey has been barred from further using grant money for its repairs and restoration of historic churches. Its state Supreme Court has ruled last Wednesday that the project's use of the funds under the "Religious Aid Clause" was unconstitutional.

(Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein)The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that historical churches in the state cannot use state funds for repairs.

The decision arose from a legal dispute between Morris County and Wisconsin-based activist group Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). In 2015, FFRF sued the county for using $1.04 million of the Historic Preservation Trust Fund to repair St. Peter's Episcopal Church and the Morristown Presbyterian Church.

From 2012 and 2015, Morris County also undertook more historic church restoration projects using a total of $4.6 million in grant money. The FFRF argued that the use of funds contradicted the state's constitution that cited no person shall 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."

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner's 62-page ruling reverses the lower court's decision. Rabner wrote that the restoration projects were more for religious than historical purposes, as underscored in the churches' applications for the grants. The churches outlined that the restorations were needed to ensure that the sites would remain safe for meditation, worship and other church services.

Officials of Morris County expressed disappointment over Rabner's ruling. County Administrator John Bonanni said that the historical churches make up the fabric of the community, and thus should still be eligible for grants in the county's preservation programs.

The officials also questioned the ruling as it went against the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in a case involving the Missouri Department of Natural Resources after it denied grants for the Trinity Lutheran Church. The U.S. Supreme Court cited that the agency violated the church's religious freedom.

Meanwhile, based on Rabner's ruling, Morris County would not be required to pay back the grant money already used, but it would no longer receive any financial assistance for additional church repairs.