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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed that Morris County can not award grants to churches.
The court denied to hear the county’s appeal of a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling barring what had been a longstanding county practice.
But proving the principle that many things about the law are complicated, Brett Kavanaugh, the court’s newest justice, actually seemed to agree with the freeholders’ central point.
In a statement joined by two other conservative judges, Sam Alito and Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh said, “Barring religious organizations because they are religious organizations from a general historic preservation grants program is pure discrimination against religion.”
Yet, Kavanaugh still agreed with the court majority not to hear the case, because “the factual details of the Morris County program are not entirely clear. In particular, it is not evident precisely what kinds of buildings can be funded under the Morris County program.”
All this could be a Pyrrhic victory of sorts for the county freeholders, but the bottom line is simple – no public grants to churches.
The freeholders for years routinely have awarded preservation grants to help refurbish and keep-up historic churches, of which there are many in Morris County. In fact, 12 churches received about $4.6 million total in grants from 2012 to 2015.
Interestingly, it was former Freeholder Hank Lyon, a conservative, who first complained about the practice. He was motivated more by fiscal prudence than animosity to religion. Lyon lost the battle, but his cause was taken up in 2015 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The case made its way through the state courts and last April, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously came out against the practice. Its reasoning was that the grants were used for a religious purpose – such as making a sanctuary more appealing.
That was in contrast to the facts of another case along these lines out of Missouri. In that case, the courts ruled that a Lutheran church was entitled to receive public funds for a playground because a playground in itself is a secular type of thing.
Kavanaugh noted that case law on the topic is still evolving, so this case – and similar ones – may be before the courts again.
But as of now, no more tax money for churches.