In an unanimous decision the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down a ruling granting tax payer funds to restore historic churches earlier this week.
The move bars churches with active congregations from receiving funds.
The Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders selected a dozen churches for restoration after a strict review process.
Those houses of worship, each over 100 years old, were allotted 4.6 million dollars from the preservation fund which lawyers for the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State argued violated the Religious Aid Clause in the state’s constitution.
This ruling is an about face from the Superior court ruling of 2017 which supported the funding of historic churches.
Advocates for the separation of church and state see this court decision as a big win in their fight to keep religion out of government. Ed Barocas, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey says the Garden State "has a specific prohibition in its constitution" against giving funds to support houses of worship.
According to Barocas "no tax payer funds should be used to build or repair a church or maintain a ministry because its viewed as compelled support of religion."
Alex Luchenitser, Associate Legal Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, agrees with that statement and adds that allowing churches to receive tax payer funds would do more harm than good.
Luchenitser tells CBN News, “Government grants come with governmental strings. And so they lead to governmental interference in the internal affairs of houses of worship. Here, for example, the grants gave the county easements over church property, restricted future alterations to church buildings, and gave the county authority to audit how the grant funds were used.”
“Government funding can also harm houses of worship by causing them to become dependent on state aid for support, instead of private contributions.” Luchenitser also said.
He warns “state aid to religious institutions can harm religious freedom by leading to competition between sects and favoritism by governmental bodies of some religious groups over others.”
Attorney Diana Verm with Becket sees the case very differently.
"The Court’s decision today leaves churches out in the cold and denies the many important contributions they have made to our nation’s history and culture,” Verm told CBN News.
“Denying widely available historical preservation grants to churches simply because they are churches departs from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in Trinity Lutheran that the Constitution prohibits governments from discriminating against religious organizations," she went on to say.
The court is not expected to require churches who received funds to return them.