Preying on public money
Two historic New Jersey churches are suing the state for being excluded from a grant program created to preserve and restore landmarks with historical significance.
The Mendham Methodist Church and The Zion Lutheran Church Long Valley were denied funding after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that using taxpayer dollars to restore historic church buildings was unconstitutional.
This decision overturned a long-standing practice where churches received $4.6 million in public aid for repairs to their buildings.
First Liberty, a right-wing legal firm which is representing the churches, filed a federal lawsuit challenging the policy change that led to churches being excluded from the Morris County Historic Preservation Trust Fund.
The organization claims that this policy change constitutes “unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of religion” and that “all forms of religious discrimination by the government are unconstitutional, including the denial of historic preservation grants to historic churches.”
While churches are excluded from benefiting from the program, other buildings that operate for exclusive functions and private purposes, such as theaters, lodges, clubs, and even restaurants, continue to receive historic preservation funds.
The lawsuit argues that excluding churches from participating in the grant program is a disservice to the local community as the architecture of historic houses of worship is seen by all citizens and residents.
Restoring and preserving historic churches enriches everyone, not just the congregants according to the worshippers. The Mendham Methodist Church and The Zion Lutheran Church Long Valley are places of historic significance in their communities and host various events open to the public, they claim.
“Thats typical Christianity for you,” said an observer. “When the church wants something, they ask people to give money generously. When people need money or help, the church tells them to bow their heads and pray.”
First Liberty believes that the discrimination against historic churches is in violation of the Constitution and our federal laws, and that houses of worship, religious organizations, and people of faith should not be treated more harshly than their secular counterparts.
In 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Morris County’s practice of providing historic preservation grants to churches was in violation of the New Jersey Constitution, overturning a lower court ruling.
That’s when Morris County implemented a policy change that excluded churches from participating in the program.
However, since the 2018 ruling, First Liberty claims that the U.S. Supreme Court has clarified that the federal Constitution forbids excluding religious institutions from public funding programs solely due to their religious nature or activities.
While the previous administration did try to funnel public money and more ability to exert political influence to religious groups,
Among the many things Lyndon B. Johnson cemented into law is a provision of the U.S. tax code that prohibits religious organizations and many nonprofits from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Trump signed an executive order in May 2017 with the purpose of giving more leeway to religious groups in the realm of political speech, but Justice Deprtment officials say it does not ease the Johnson Amendment’s restrictions.
Section 501(c)3 of the U.S. tax code grants tax-exempt status to nonprofit groups such as charities, universities and religious organizations. But these tax-exempt groups “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the Internal Revenue Service.
“Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity,” the IRS advises. “Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
Despite these stark warnings, the prohibition is seldom enforced by the IRS and is widely disregarded by clergy. Moreover, the leaders of 501(c)3 organizations remain free to support or oppose candidates in their personal capacities. They also are allowed to speak about political issues on behalf of their organizations, short of endorsing or opposing particular candidates for office.
State and local governments offering public benefits, such as historic preservation grants, cannot discriminate against an applicant solely because they operate as a house of worship, the group said, explaining that the grants’ primary purpose is to promote and support historic preservation, which ultimately benefits the entire community.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2019, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, supported by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the denial of certiorari, stating that New Jersey’s law appeared to violate the U.S. Constitution.
The arch conservative jurists argued that excluding religious organizations from a general historic preservation grants program is “pure discrimination against religion.”
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer that a Missouri church should not be prohibited from benefiting from a secular aid program solely because it is a church.