New Jersey Ruling Could Reignite Battle Over Church-State Separation

Apr 26, 2018

By Nick Corasanti

MORRISTOWN, N.J. — The apex of the slate roof of the historic chapel of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown peeks over the trees lining the central green here, its chips and cracks visible from the ground. In need of repair, the church did what many other houses of worship in the area have done — turned for help to the county, which gave it more than $260,000 in 2013.

Since 2012, Morris County has provided more than $4.6 million to 12 churches in the form of historic preservation grants, a readily available source of money to fix facades, stained glass windows and aging roofs.

But a unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court found that public money could no longer be used by churches, citing a clause in the State Constitution expressly forbidding it, a decision that could reverberate beyond New Jersey and reignite a national debate over the separation of church and state.

The New Jersey decision last week came less than a year after the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in a case from Missouri that states must sometimes provide aid to religious groups even when their state constitutions prohibit the use of public funds for the benefit of houses of worship.

Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below.

16 comments on “New Jersey Ruling Could Reignite Battle Over Church-State Separation

  • Not sure that I agree with the rulings – in fact sure that I don’t. You can’t just let old buildings fall down, Europe would be bereft of its historical monuments, and with it a good part of its culture. A huge part of the built legacy is religious, and Henry V111 and Cromwell did enough to cause their ruin, without further ideological assaults on their well-being. And what would contributors ot this site say about the restoration of temples and stone circles, after all they are religious buildings?

    The USA is less fortunate in its endowments, so they should be allowed to save what they can. In Europe, with low church attendance and therefore lack of funds, historic buildings would not survive without government assistance. Any restoration, whoever pays for it, has to be undertaken within strict guidelines relating to preservation of the fabric and appropriateness of any alterations or extensions.



    Report abuse

  • I agree with you in principle, eejit – though I have to confess, my agreement is more in the European context than the US one.

    Religion so wholly dominated the past that it has defined and shaped our cultural heritage too. We don’t have to uphold the beliefs, and the state certainly shouldn’t be funding religious activities, but the buildings have a value that we can all share in. We can appreciate them as works of architecture and art that reveal something of our past and connect us to it, and in which we can still have a stake even if we’re not religious.

    But I’m going to admit to being Eurocentric here. Apologies in advance to US readers. US history is so … short, and even the oldest US church so … young. The church in this photo doesn’t look, to my European eyes, particularly special or significant. (I totally accept that people in the US may see it differently.) European churches often date back to the 11th century, sometimes even earlier. Their cultural and heritage status are, in my view, undeniable, and it would be an absolute tragedy if they were to collapse and be lost through lack of repair and upkeep. The costs involved are enormous, and I don’t object to public cultural/heritage/art funds being used for that purpose where necessary. The value of such places to me has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with beauty, and awe at the amazing human achievement, and a link with our distant past.

    Is it quite the same in the US, though? The Church of England finds itself responsible for the upkeep of countless invaluable buildings – historical heirlooms, really – and cannot possibly generate the funds for the task from the donations of its ever-dwindling congregations. Yet the churches in the US are mega-rich, and the buildings they are responsible for nowhere near as old and therefore presumably nowhere near as expensive to maintain and/or restore. Is there really the same kind of need for public funds to preserve them?



    Report abuse

  • Marco #2
    Apr 26, 2018 at 5:37 pm

    But I’m going to admit to being Eurocentric here.
    Apologies in advance to US readers. US history is so … short, and even the oldest US church so … young.
    The church in this photo doesn’t look, to my European eyes, particularly special or significant.
    (I totally accept that people in the US may see it differently.)
    European churches often date back to the 11th century, sometimes even earlier.

    I think that outstanding examples of architecture should be preserved with some state support, but even in Europe, redundant historic churches are sold off, but are often preserved as museums, art studios, showrooms etc. and supported by commercial ventures which are unrelated to religion.

    http://andrewgranger.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/494721302789287_New_Uses_for_Closed_Churches.pdf

    I note that even in the USSR under the communists, when religions were discouraged, notable historic religious buildings were preserved as museums, – as were the palaces of the Czars!



    Report abuse

  • Marco

    My first impulse on the issue was to say, not one dime of my tax money will be spent on repairing churches or other religious buildings! I must admit to an inkling of my old Methodist upbringing with the vestigial belief that the congregation is responsible for the budget of their own church and nobody else need donate a single cent.

    I also meant to say that I’d rather donate to the renovation of European historic buildings for the very reason you mentioned – they seem impossibly ancient to my American mind and your history is my history too! When in Paris, this atheist never misses a mass at Notre Dame and I still love climbing the winding stairway up to the top of Sacre Coeur. Fantastic stuff. I haven’t been to London for ages but when I get back there, many churches will be on my to do list.

    Even though our American history is short and somewhat brutish, we do have a few churches that I must admit, hold a special place in our national narrative. Since I never miss an opportunity to blabber on about the pivotal role of Boston in our beloved Revolutionary war story, I now must remind myself that much of the planning and conniving done by those intrepid revolutionaries took place in churches and other meeting houses. I checked Wiki for a list of historical churches just in the Boston area and of course these are all well known to the native New Englanders and held in great affection. I don’t give a damn about the religious behavior that takes place inside these structures but I do care very much about the role they’ve played in our history here. And this is just the Boston area.

    http://boston.cbslocal.com/top-lists/boston-areas-best-historic-churches/

    We have the Revolutionary history here in Boston but there is other important history in other parts of the country too. One important church that I would donate to for renovation is the 13th St Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a symbol of the civil rights struggle of African Americans here.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16th_Street_Baptist_Church_bombing

    I’ve visited some of the old Spanish missions in California and they are beautiful.

    So now, after thinking about what a damn shame it would be to lose these buildings to the dust of time, I would be fine with having a committee that compiles a list of the buildings that are worth saving and delegating the repairs and funding to do them.

    We have more than our fair share of architectural abominations here in the States I’ll grant you that. Those megachurches can be wisked out to sea in a mega tornado for all I care (with no one inside of them of course). But in several hundred years of history, we have managed to create a few interesting structures that we can call uniquely American. This is a weird place with big weird problems but you Europeans don’t have a monopoly on history and high culture!!

    There you go Marco. I had to end on that note and you know you had it coming to you. 😀



    Report abuse

  • No recent history to be preserved means no history to be preserved. It needs a chance to get old. Exceptional examples of architecture and of locations of historical events glorious and shaming are candidates.

    When you great granddaughter asks what were churches, nan? Your daughter can show her.

    The best uses for local churches at the moment are as concert venues and rather beautiful homes. What I like about stone and brick buildings is their organic adaptability. They become palimpsests on palimpsests. Blue plaques are common in London recalling famous people who lived and worked in such places, Versions of them (to be put in windows) can be got for your own home recalling the Edwardian chair maker or whomever.

    In London the South Bank Brutalist buildings are being refurbished. The original materials used inside were of such high quality that they were mostly used again after re-working. The Barbican is equally brilliant in terms of its materials. Investing in buildings using materials fit for centuries of use is one way to encourage retention. American Architects have been some of the greatest ever. They nearly always specify superb materials.



    Report abuse

  • LaurieB #4
    Apr 26, 2018 at 7:15 pm

    My first impulse on the issue was to say, not one dime of my tax money will be spent on repairing churches or other religious buildings!
    I must admit to an inkling of my old Methodist upbringing with the vestigial belief that the congregation is responsible for the budget of their own church
    and nobody else need donate a single cent.

    We should remember, that while congregations are scraping together donations to repair long neglected church roofs, and begging for grants from public funds, the bishops are frequently sitting on vast central investment funds, land, and property, which have accrued from previous donations!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23467750

    They range from pieces of woodland used for timber to investment strategies run by some of the world’s biggest hedge funds, and stakes in big oil companies.

    The whole operation is overseen by an ethical investment advisory board designed to prevent the Church from funding any businesses seen as against Christian principles.

    Around £5.2bn of investments are managed by the Church Commissioners – a body charged with managing the Church’s assets in order to produce money to support its work.

    Most of that – £3.25bn – is invested in securities – bonds and shares – both in the UK and abroad.



    Report abuse

  • Laurie

    There you go Marco. I had to end on that note and you know you had it
    coming to you. 😀

    I do indeed. And in fact I think you let me off more lightly than I deserved 😉

    Phil

    No recent history to be preserved means no history to be preserved. It
    needs a chance to get old.

    Absolutely true, of course. I guess my point is more about the need for state funds to do the preserving. A church built, say, 100 years ago may well have qualities that make it worth preserving, regardless of the purpose for which it was originally built (or indeed, for which it is still being used). But given the notoriously wealthy congregations in the US, and given that preserving or even restoring a 100-year old building is nowhere near as demanding or costly as preserving or restoring one that is 400 or 500 or even 900 years old, is it not reasonable to expect such work to be funded by the churches themselves in normal circumstances?

    The scale of the challenge in England, Italy, France, Spain, Germany etc etc is far greater. Though Alan’s point about the vast sums held in investment funds by Church of England Commissioners is of course a highly valid one. Even so, I do see those truly historic buildings as something we all have a stake in, religious or not. They have a meaning and a beauty, and a place in our towns, villages and cities, that goes far beyond the religious purposes they were built to serve. I don’t see their preservation as being something of value only to the churches themselves.



    Report abuse

  • Speaking of church buildings, when a friend of mine became aware of my atheism she said that the atheists were disadvantaged in their lack of a congregation and all of its power to organize ourselves and find community there. I didn’t disagree with that point at the time but did explain that the atheists who want to engage in those behaviors have found some ways to do that. Apparently, the UU church is full of atheists and humanists and there are atheist “churches” appearing on the scene here and there in the past years. The atheists who struggled to be let out of the church and now carry bitter resentment (me) and others who are just introverted enough to not seek that scheduled Sunday morning socializing are very happy to spend their Sunday mornings and other times of the week just reading or sleeping in or gardening or whatever they like! (me).

    In the end, I said to her, “We atheists don’t need a building. We have the internet.”



    Report abuse

  • You are all very nice. I am not. If a building is deemed historically significant and public funds are spent on it, then the public MUST have some control over said property. Here is the US, there are more churches than can be easily counted. Where I sit writing this, I could draw a circle with a three mile radius and more than 40 churches would fall in that area. I do not want to support them. As a matter of fact, their crumbling, unsafe buildings are a wonderful reminder for me — a reminder of their crumbling hold on my country. Good riddance.

    As a matter of fact, I’d sooner vote to condemn the shit holes than re-hab them.

    I bought a property for my daughter. The sidewalk had nothing wrong with it. NOTHING. except, the code enforcement officer would not issue a certificate of occupancy until I tore up the sidewalk and replaced it with concrete that MATCHED THE NEIGHBOR”S. No one paid for it but me. It was not necessary, stupid, bureaucratic nonsense. Churches that are falling apart need to be razed and replaced with some entity that contributes to the tax pool. every church is a dead property, tax wise. And the time has come to stop supporting this nonsense!



    Report abuse

  • BTW, as of 2006, there were over 4 HUNDRED THOUSAND churches in the US. Now, that number has declined…. But a little math and… giving each of them a hundred grand for their renovations and we’d be looking at an outlay of 40,000,000,000. And once one of them is given money, don’t all of them qualify?

    How about this? Tax them at a measly 5% and let them pay for their own renovations. This modest tax would result in a bounty of over 50 BILLION dollars.

    The time is ripe. I’d love to see a ground swell movement aimed at churches giving unto caesar what is caesar’s.



    Report abuse

  • Crooked

    99% of US churches can go under the wrecking ball and it would be good riddance. The ones that survive need to follow building codes just like the rest of us (sorry about your ridiculous sidewalk). And why should they get that tax break of 5% ? They must pay the going rate. Any tax break to them and it’s you and me that get screwed into paying more. There’s a budget to meet and why should we suffer?

    For your consideration; those big old churches make gorgeous dance clubs. Usually the DJ occupies the choir loft and the bar is set up where the altar used to be. The whole rest of the sanctuary is the dance floor. Of course this is a business proposition and businesses pay taxes (hopefully). Good times!!



    Report abuse

  • Crooked #10

    Is anyone really suggesting that every single church should qualify for this kind of support?

    Presumably there are already or could be in future some kind of qualifying criteria? e.g. age, architect, particularly significant design, or being strongly associated with some historic event, etc.

    I’d hate to see an architecturally or historically significant building being lost or decaying beyond repair simply because it was built as a church.



    Report abuse

  • crookedshoes #9
    Apr 27, 2018 at 8:33 am

    I bought a property for my daughter.
    The sidewalk had nothing wrong with it. NOTHING. except, the code enforcement officer would not issue a certificate of occupancy until I tore up the sidewalk and replaced it with concrete that MATCHED THE NEIGHBOR”S.
    No one paid for it but me.
    It was not necessary, stupid, bureaucratic nonsense.

    Your example of stupid bureaucracy, reminds me of an English example.

    A structural engineer colleague of my brother, bought a house and the mortgage provider’s surveyor, said that some damp in a wall was caused by rain splashing on a flower border, and that this would have to be replaced with a concrete path.

    My brother’s colleague pointed out that such surveyors have only limited training, and the wall actually needed fitting with some special ventilators and some damp-proofing.

    The mortgage lenders said they would stand by their surveyor’s report and would not provide a mortgage unless the concrete path was installed!

    He reluctantly paid for a concrete path, secured the mortgage, and two years later ripped up the concrete path and installed the ventilators and damp-proofing which fixed the problem!

    He was particularly NOT AMUSED, that he had pointed out to them that he had two degrees in structural engineering, was a member of the institute of structural engineers, and was the resident buildings estate manager on a nearby nuclear power station, but they had still preferred to insist on believing their incompetent minimally qualified surveyor!



    Report abuse

  • The kind and quality of buildings that I have in mind are those exceptional pieces architecturally like the Thorncrown Chapel Arkansas and historically like the Ebenezer Baptist Church Atlanta.

    Those other everyday club houses can be paid for by their members.

    The sooner those exceptional places move into history and public ownership the better.



    Report abuse

  • Money spent restoring places of worship means less money for other secular community projects. I think it is only fair churches be taxed, before granted access to “public” funds. Just like every other project. This raises the question of regular enterprises who pay taxes….do they get access to public funds when their building(s) need repair ? Or only those deemed architecturally significant ? Who gets to vote ?



    Report abuse

  • rod-the-farmer #15
    Apr 28, 2018 at 7:52 am

    This raises the question of regular enterprises who pay taxes….do they get access to public funds when their building(s) need repair ? Or only those deemed architecturally significant ?

    Here’s a UK example for you Rod which you may find of interest!

    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/2m-funding-for-rural-communities-to-restore-historic-buildings

    The Historic Building Restoration Grant is being piloted in Dartmoor, Lake District, Northumberland, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks with £2 million of funding available.

    The aim of the scheme is to help save the iconic historic farm buildings in the English National Parks from falling out of use.
    Owners of these buildings from today can apply for a grant offering 80% towards the cost of restoration.
    This can include replacing the roof, weatherproofing the exterior, or other restoration works so that the building can be used again for farming purposes.




    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.