To the Editor:
On June 27, 2012 , the Community of St. John Baptist, the First Presbyterian Church of New Vernon, the Parish House in Morristown, the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, Stanhope United Methodist Church in Netcong, the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, and the First Reformed Church of Pompton Plains in Pequannock.
The total funds granted totaled almost $2.1 million.
While I do not doubt the historic value of these religious institutions, and the benefit to the community of their preservation, the grant of government funds to religious institutions for repair of facilities used exclusively for sectarian purposes is unconstitutional. Here are some examples of the grants awarded:
- St. Peter’s Episcopal, with an operating budget is $937,000, was granted $500,000 to repair the church tower and walls to “ensure continued safe public access to the church for worship.”
- The Presbyterian Church of Morristown, with an operating budget is $1.3 million, was granted $478,000 for roof restoration to “insure [sic] their continued use by our congregation for worship services…”
- The First Presbyterian Church of New Vernon, with an operating budget of $626,000, was granted $125,000 for window repair to “restore the original beauty and utility of this historic church.”
The apparent neglect of church facilities through insufficient allocation of church resources to maintenance activities should not justify use of public funds for restoration when a building’s issues become acute.
Analysis provided by Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger in 1995, specifically on the subject of awarding historic preservation grants to religious institutions, states:
We think that these concerns would be implicated squarely were the government to provide churches and other pervasively sectarian facilities with historic preservation grants. The draft opinion suggests that such grants might be permissible if restricted to the preservation of "secular elements" of otherwise religious buildings -- that is, if government assistance were used only for such purposes as exterior renovation, roof repair, and replacement of structurally necessary internal components. What underlies the Court's decisions in this area, however, is an understanding that in the context of pervasively sectarian facilities, "secular elements" simply cannot be identified and separated from the overall religious mission. Indeed, renovation of active churches and other houses of worship appears to be a case in point. Though a structural element like a roof can be characterized as "secular" rather than "sectarian" in most contexts, the distinction cannot be maintained in any meaningful sense when the roof is a component part of an active church.
In 1991 the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Lamont v. Woods, the court stated “direct aid is considered to have a principal or primary effect of advancing religion whenever it flows to a ‘pervasively sectarian’ institution.” The court goes on to say:
The general prohibition on funding pervasively sectarian institutions is essentially a prophylactic rule, designed to prevent the risk that the government's money, though designated for a specific secular purpose, "may nonetheless advance the pervasively sectarian institution's `religious mission.'” The rule thus reflects a determination that such risk, as a general matter, is unacceptable. In practice, because characterization of an institution as pervasively sectarian ends the constitutional inquiry, the pervasively sectarian test may result in the summary invalidation of expenditures that do not have the primary effect of advancing religion, and so do not, in fact, offend the Establishment Clause.
In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, “The maintenance and repair provisions of the New York statute violate the Establishment Clause because their inevitable effect is to subsidize and advance the religious mission.” The purpose of historic preservation implied by the grant of funds from the Historic Preservation Trust does not alter the fact that funds were allocated to religious institutions with the specific purpose of maintenance and repair of sectarian facilities.
The courts have ruled on numerous instances where government funding of religious institutions is permissible under the Establishment clause, in none of the cases passing constitutional muster were funds provided for historic preservation, maintenance or construction of facilities with a specifically sectarian purpose.