FFRF v. Morris County Board of Freeholders
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Historic buildings are an important part of our national heritage, from Independence Hall, George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, and 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 also has a long history of funding historic preservation for buildings including churches. One of the 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, New Jersey created a historic preservation fund to help restore beautiful, historic buildings in the area. The program is part of a competitive grant program funded by property taxes and requires applicants – both secular and religious – to establish the historic significance of the building. For churches, the 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.
But an atheist group is claiming that Morris County can restore historic buildings – just not churches. In December 2015, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued Morris County complaining that allowing churches to participate in the program violates the New Jersey Constitution.
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, a New Jersey court ruled in favor of Morris County and protected the right of religious historic buildings to participate in the program. FFRF appealed that decision and the case is now before the New Jersey Supreme Court. In July 2017, Becket and Thomas A. Gentile of Wison Elser in Florham Park, New Jersey filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the program and churches who benefit from it.