U.S. Supreme Court Declines Ruling on N.J.’s Unconstitutional Church Grants Decision

New Jersey’s Supreme Court Decision Stands, Holding That Historic Preservation Grants Cannot Be Used For Churches

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined review of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that historic preservation grants cannot be used for churches. In April 2018, the State’s highest court ended a nearly four-year battle in Morris County, when they held that using tax dollars to restore historic churches violates the Religious Aid Clause of the State’s Constitution.

Supreme Court Justices had the opportunity to impose further guidance on church v. state funding issues, following a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that saw Trinity Lutheran Church of Missouri successful. The Court had ruled that under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the church could not be denied an otherwise public benefit solely because of its religious status.

The decision of New Jersey’s Supreme Court, therefore, stands, as the writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied. Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, 232 N.J. 543 (2018).

Six of the Supreme Court justices declined to review the case without comment. Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch provided commentary that there was a lack of clarity of the facts, but the law still needs development.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh urged the Court to consider a future case that takes up the same issues. “Barring religious organizations because they are religious from a general historic preservation grants program is pure discrimination against religion.”

Between 2012 and 2015, over $4.6 million in taxpayer funding was awarded to reconstruct and restore 12 churches in Morris County, as part of a historic preservation program. Freeholders defended the granting of funds, claiming they had a secular purpose in preserving the character and architecture of the county’s historical sites. Such buildings included churches dating back to the 1700s.

In January 2016, the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders was sued by Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a non-profit group that promotes secularism.

Morris County and the grant recipients claimed that to withhold grants from eligible churches violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. While the trial court ruled in their favor, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the decision. New Jersey’s highest court found that the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches.

With the denial to hear the case, the controversy ends with the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision. The odds were slim that the case would be heard in Washington D.C., with the U.S. Supreme Court hearing only about 2% of the 7,000 cases the court is asked to consider each year.