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The Supreme Court will not hear a pending case from Morris County, New Jersey, involving churches using taxpayers’ money for renovation of their buildings. This case has a long history and started with a large amount of money that was given to a dozen churches in a Morris County for general maintenance. These so called “historic preservation grants,” in the amount of more than 5.5 million dollars, were presumed legal because they were not used for direct promotion of the faith.
The plaintiff in this case, David Steketee and the Freedom From Religious Foundation filed a lawsuit in 2015 saying the historic preservation grants were illegal because giving money for renovation frees up funding that goes right back into worship and people are still worshiping at these churches, which means that these grants are used for promoting faith.
The first ruling in this case was in January of 2017 when a judge ruled that using grants for renovation is legal but this decision was appealed and it landed in front of the state Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court last year found that under the state Constitution, religious institutions could not receive public dollars and blocked the churches from receiving the grants for historic preservation. According to Patheos, the public funds awarded in this case actually went toward “religious uses.” It is clear from the stipulated facts in the record that the Churches all “have active congregations that regularly worship, or participate in other religious activities,” and all hold “regular worship services in one or more of the structures that they have used, or will use,” taxpayer-funded grants to repair.
This was a major victory for advocates of church/state separation. But then the “Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders” (represented by conservative legal group Becket) asked the Supreme Court to take up the case: “In Morris County, we want to preserve all of our historical sites, including our magnificent houses of worship, some of which date back to the 1700s and were designed by the leading architects of their time,” said Doug Cabana, the freeholder director of Morris County, as Patheos reports. Luckily, the Supreme Court said they would not take up this case, but three of the judges — Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh — issued a statement saying that, while they agree this case shouldn’t be taken up, it’s only because of the details in this particular instance, not because the questions don’t need to be resolved. It means that the decision not to take the case stands only for this particular case and that in the future there may be another similar case that The Supreme Court is going to be willing to take.