FFRF v. Morris County Board of Freeholders
Historic buildings are an important part of our national heritage. The State of New Jersey has long funded historic preservation for buildings, including churches, that are listed on the state and national historic registries. In 2002, Morris County, New Jersey similarly established a grant program to help maintain, historic buildings in the area. But in 2015, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued, claiming that Morris County was violating the New Jersey Constitution by funding churches as part of its preservation grant program. Morris County initially won its case in a New Jersey superior court in January 2017, but in April 2018 the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned that ruling. Morris County, represented by Becket, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2018.
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Historic preservation is important—and legal
Historic buildings are an important part of our national heritage, from Independence Hall, to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King served as pastor until his death. These buildings need frequent restoration to remain available for public and future use. The state of New Jersey has a long history of funding historic preservation for buildings, including churches. One of the State’s earliest grants was to the 1850 Solomon Wesley Church, an active house of worship originally built to serve as a community of freed slaves.
In 2002, Morris County created a historic preservation fund to help restore beautiful, historic buildings within the County. The program is a competitive grant program and requires applicants—both secular and religious—to establish the historic significance of the building, typically by showing they are on the state or national historic registry. For churches, grants are limited to preservation of the building’s exterior and any structural and mechanical systems. Between 2012 and 2015, the County provided grants to 55 religious and nonreligious buildings.
In December 2015, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued Morris County in New Jersey Superior Court, complaining that allowing churches to participate in the program violates the New Jersey Constitution. They claimed that Morris County can restore historic buildings—just not churches. Yet courts have consistently ruled that churches cannot be banned from widely available public benefit programs. In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that a state can’t deny church schools from participating in a shredded-tire resurfacing program to make playgrounds safer for kids. In January 2017, the New Jersey court ruled in Morris County’s favor and protected the right of religious historic buildings to participate in the program. In April 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of FFRF, saying that under the New Jersey constitution the government cannot provide grants to preserve the architecture of historic churches.
On September 19, 2018, Morris Country, represented by Becket, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to let Morris County continue treating all historic sites the same, without having to engage in religious discrimination.
Importance to religious liberty
- Public Square: Houses of worship that have historical significance should qualify for the same benefits as other historically significant sites.
- Reinforcing precedent: In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that the state of Missouri couldn’t prevent a religious school from participating in a publicly available program that provides shredded-tire resurfacing to make playgrounds safer for kids on equal footing with other schools.