Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

New Jersey churches lose preservation grant case

First Amendment | State’s high court rules against funding applications because they allow churches to continue holding religious services
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 4/24/18, 03:58 pm

A unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court ruled last week that churches should not have access to county historic preservation grants.

Attorneys for a dozen New Jersey churches, all previous grant recipients, are considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The New Jersey justices ruled taxpayer funding for restoration of historic churches violates the state Constitution’s Religious Aid Clause. In a concurring opinion, Justice Lee Solomon admitted the merits of the case required he vote with the majority but argued the state’s “antiestablishment interests” are limited by the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause.

“No one has disputed that these structures are historic, or that they contribute to the local historic districts,” Solomon wrote. “The fact that prayer occurs inside the structures should not deprive the public of the benefit of preserving their outside appearance, which is all that the grants do.”

A taxpayer-funded historic preservation trust in Morris County, N.J., provides money for qualified projects, including churches. From 2012 to 2015, the trust awarded $4.6 million to 12 active churches for restoration projects. But a resident, backed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, filed suit in 2016, claiming the grants violated the state’s constitution.

The state high court agreed and overturned a lower court decision in the churches’ favor. Part of the high court’s decision hinged on wording from grant applications stating “funds were needed to allow the church to offer religious services.”

That wording disqualified the churches from relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, Justice C.J. Rabner wrote in the majority opinion. The Trinity decision applied so long as the generally available public funds would not be used for an “essentially religious endeavor.”

“The court viewed the grants as being intended to keep the church doors open for services, which it viewed as subsidizing religion,” said Ken Wilbur, an attorney with Drinker Biddle representing the 12 churches. “But none of the applications asked for or were given funds in order to continue hosting religious services.”

The congregations—which include churches aligned with the Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, the Reformed Church in America, the United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches USA, and the United Church of Christ, and a Catholic parish—could repair their buildings with cheaper, modern materials that would maintain the structures but destroy their historic value, Wilbur noted. “This would not, however, advance the county’s legitimate interest in preserving large, historic, slate-and-stone structures as a means of preserving the integrity of the historic districts anchored by these structures,” he said.

The court did not seek a reimbursement of the grants, but the ruling will apply going forward, preventing the churches from seeking additional grant funds.

In a similar ruling issued in March, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled a public grant to restore a historic church’s stained glass windows violated that state’s Constitution. The decision does not bar all future grants but establishes a three-point test for determining whether future grants pass constitutional muster.

Army chaplain faces bias complaint over marriage workshop

A U.S. Army chaplain could face disciplinary action after a lesbian service member accused him of discrimination for excluding her from a marriage workshop. An attorney for Chaplain Jerry Scott Squires calls the conclusions found by the miltary’s office of equal opportunity investigation “severely deficient” and has asked the commanding officer to strike the complaint and restore Squires’ untainted service record.

The woman, a sergeant, asked Squires if she could enroll in a Feb. 9 marriage workshop he planned to lead. The registration deadline had already passed, he told her, but added he could not facilitate the “Strong Bonds” workshop if it included same-sex couples. The tenets of his endorsing ministry, the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, prohibited him from doing so. Squires later made arrangements for the sergeant to attend another Strong Bonds meeting, according to attorney Michael Berry with First Liberty.

But that didn’t suffice, and the woman filed an official complaint. Berry described the subsequent investigation as fraught with “factual discrepancies” and asked Col. William J. Rice to dismiss the complaint and its career-damaging implications.

“It is inconceivable that a military chaplain who merely explains that his/her ecclesiastical endorser places certain restrictions on what religious rites, ceremonies, and practices he/she may perform violates military [equal opportunity] policy,” Berry said, noting the investigation concluded the sergeant’s desire to attend a specific workshop superseded the chaplain’s “sincerely held religious beliefs, denominational tenets, and legal requirements.”

Squires’ case comes just two weeks after the successful appeal by an Air Force officer who faced a similar career-damaging investigation over a discrimination complaint. —B.P. A promotion for vacation Bible school materials on the Concordia Publishing House website

Google blocks Christian publisher’s ads

Google AdWords disabled a Christian publisher’s marketing tool because its ads mention Jesus and the Bible. Concordia Publishing House, the publishing arm of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, revealed the spat with Google in an announcement Tuesday.

Remarketing ads are generated by a user’s previously visited websites and are designed to draw them back to the original source for a purchase. A Google representative initially told Concordia its remarketing ads violated Google’s “interest and location” policy. Then the company said the Concordia ads violated its prohibition against marketing “religious beliefs.” Finally, after a manual review of Concordia’s website—with its banner promoting vacation Bible school materials—the Google representative informed Concordia its remarketing tool had been disabled because the publisher mentions Jesus and the Bible.

The tool could be put to use again if Concordia removed all references to the offending content and used a “different type of Google ad product,” according to the publisher’s statement.

“We are not willing to sacrifice our beliefs to comply with Google’s requirements,” Concordia president Bruce Kintz said. “It’s no secret that society is becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. This increasing hostility makes our mission of proclaiming that faith through the books, Bibles, and curriculum that we produce all the more important.”

Providentially featured under “new releases” on the website’s homepage: The Gates of Hell: Confessing Christ in a Hostile World, a collection of sermons and essays testifying to the “power of Christ’s promise to defend His Church.” —B.P.

Oklahoma foster care bill gets a second chance

The Oklahoma House of Representatives could take up a bill providing protection for religious foster and adoption care agencies Wednesday. The bill’s co-author, Rep. Travis Dunlap, a Republican, has filed an amendment repealing language inserted during a committee hearing that eviscerated the law’s intent. Although mindful of the ardent opposition the bill faces from pro-LGBT forces, Dunlap told me he is cautiously optimistic it will pass the state House. The measure, like those in about six other states, would provide legal protection from ruinous lawsuits filed against faith-based foster and adoption care agencies that do not serve same-sex couples. —B.P.

Student, college settle free speech lawsuit

Joliet Junior College has agreed to abandon its restrictive speech policies in a settlement with student Ivette Salazar. Campus police detained and questioned Salazar in November for passing out flyers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation that proclaimed an anti-capitalism message. Salazar sued over the school’s requirement she only distribute such literature in a small, out-of-the way space on campus. As part of the settlement, the suburban Chicago school agreed to adopt a model speech policy written by the University of Chicago and championed by Salazar’s attorneys at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. —B.P.

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Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.

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