Supreme Court refuses to hear church fight for historic preservation funds

Supreme Court refuses to hear church fight for historic preservation funds
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court has refused to hear a dispute over whether a local government in New Jersey can award publicly-funded historic preservation grants to active churches and other religious institutions. 

Government officials in Morris County, N.J., and 12 churches had urged the justices to review the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling siding with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secularist group that along with a local taxpayer had challenged the $4.6 million that had been awarded to the churches.

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The lower court said state law prohibits taxpayer funds from being used to repair churches.

The officials and churches, however, argued that excluding religious buildings from the county’s historic preservation program unconstitutionally discriminates against religion.

A majority of the justices on the court refused to hear their case. It takes four justices to agree to grant a review of a lower court ruling. 

In a statement respecting the court’s decision, which Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined, Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughTrump rips ABC over Epstein coverage Graham: 'Brett Kavanaugh lived a life we should all be proud of' Harris struggling with substance to match the aspiration MORE said this court at some point will need to decide whether governments that distribute historic preservation funds may deny funds to religious organizations simply because the organizations are religious. 

But he said this isn’t the case to do it. He said the factual details of the Morris County program are not entirely clear and there is not yet “a robust” case law in the lower courts on the question.

Kavanaugh said it was only recently that the court ruled in a case known as  Trinity Lutheran that a Missouri law unconstitutionally barred a religious school from obtaining state grant funding to resurface its playground.

In that 2017 decision, Kavanaugh noted the court had stated that the Constitution “protects religious observers against unequal treatment.”

But he said the court’s refusal to hear the case out of New Jersey should not be read as a ruling on the issue.

“As always, a denial of certiorari does not imply agreement or disagreement with the decision of the relevant federal court of appeals or state Supreme Court,” he said.

“In my view, prohibiting historic preservation grants to religious organizations simply because the organizations are religious would raise serious questions under this Court’s precedents and the Constitution’s fundamental guarantee of equality.”

Updated at 11:49 a.m.