Mass. Court Says It’s All Right To Force Taxpayers To Foot The Bill For Church Renovations

Americans United in July filed a lawsuit in a Massachusetts court challenging three awards of taxpayer money to houses of worship to pay for renovations and upkeep.

These awards were made under the state Community Preservation Act (CPA). The idea behind the CPA is to ensure that historic properties are maintained. That is certainly a laudable goal, but in this case, we believe the state has gone too far.

Under the CPA, a number of houses of worship in the Bay State are receiving direct taxpayer grants even though they are active faith communities with congregations and regular programs of religious outreach. They are not museums.

Unfortunately, yesterday Middlesex Superior Court Judge Leila Kern denied Americans United’s request for a preliminary injunction that we sought to stop the town of Acton from giving public support to two churches.

This church would like to renovate -- at the taxpayers' expense.

Massachusetts’ Constitution couldn’t be clearer when it comes to the issue of tax money for sectarian purposes. The state’s “anti-aid” amendment states in part, “No grant, appropriation or use of public money…shall be made or authorized by the Commonwealth or any political subdivision thereof for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any infirmary, hospital, institution, primary or secondary school, or charitable or religious undertaking… and no such grant, appropriation or use of public money...shall be made or authorized for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society.”

That language clearly bars taxpayer support for houses of worship. In the legal case, which AU filed on behalf of 13 local residents, our lawyers asserted, “The Anti-Aid Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution protects the religious liberty of all citizens of the Commonwealth by prohibiting the use of public funds to support active houses of worship. Defendant Town of Acton is threatening that religious liberty.”

Acton Congregational Church, one of the houses of worship that sought tax support under the program, acknowledged in its application that it needs help because it can’t afford to pay for the renovations itself without cutting religious programming. One thing the church wants to do with the money is restore a large stained-glass window depicting Jesus Christ.

The idea that religious groups must pay their own way in the world is fundamental to the separation of church and state. Compelled taxpayer support for religion is what inspired Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their political and theological allies to demand separation of church and state.

We appreciate the fact that the churches in Acton are old and are facing structural challenges, but they need to raise the funds for restoration work from private sources, not compel taxpayers to foot the bill.

The Massachusetts court made the wrong call in this case. Americans United will appeal it.