Mass. Town Should Not Use Public Funds to Support Its Churches, Americans United Says In Lawsuit

Historic Status Of Buildings Is Not An Excuse To Subsidize Religion With Taxpayer Funds, Group Says

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed a lawsuit to stop the town of Acton, Mass., from spending taxpayer funds to support two local churches.

In legal action filed today on behalf of 13 Acton taxpayers, Americans United says officials in Acton violated the Massachusetts Constitution when they approved Community Preservation Act grants for Acton Congregational Church and South Acton Congregational Church.

“Government should not use tax funds to support churches,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The fact that a house of worship is old doesn’t mean taxpayers should be forced to subsidize a religious group to which they don’t belong. If a church needs money to preserve or restore its buildings, it should raise that money from its own members.”

In April, Acton approved the grants for the two churches. One grant would pay for the restoration of stained-glass windows at Acton Congregational Church, including a large window depicting Jesus. The second grant would pay for a master plan for extensive work at the same church.

The third grant would pay for roof work at South Acton Congregational Church.

The three grants total $115,000.

In its Caplan v. Town of Acton lawsuit, Americans United asserts that the Anti-Aid Amendment of the Massachusetts Constitution prohibits this sort of direct government payment to sectarian institutions.

“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,” the lawsuit says.

Added Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s associate legal director: “Historical preservation is a worthy goal, but it doesn’t justify violating the Constitution. Public funds should support buildings that can benefit all members of a community equally, not ones that are mainly used by members of one particular faith.”

Attorney Douglas B. Mishkin of the national law firm Venable LLP is providing pro bono representation on behalf of Americans United to the plaintiffs.

The thirteen Acton taxpayer plaintiffs include George Caplan, Jim Conboy, Del Friedman, Daniel Gilfix, Maria Greene, Jesse Levine, Dave Lunger, Allen Nitschelm, Scott Smyers, William Alstrom, and David Caplan (no relation to George Caplan). 

Along with Mishkin and Luchenitser, the case is being litigated by Americans United’s legal director Richard B. Katskee; Venable attorneys Joshua C. Cumby, Jamie L. Edmonson, and Xochitl S. Strobehn; and Massachusetts attorney Russell S. Chernin.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.