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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Supreme Court asked to reverse FFRF victory

Morris County, N.J., is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn FFRF’s resounding victory this spring against taxpayer subsidy of churches.

The county, defended by the Catholic Becket Fund, wants the court to overrule the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision against funding religious worship.

FFRF will be represented by renowned legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky in opposing the Sept. 19 request. Chemerinsky is the dean of the University of California-Berkeley School of Law.

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously held in April that state taxpayers cannot be forced to pay to repair active houses of worship, several of which explicitly sought taxpayer funds in order to further their worship services.

This decision will save New Jersey taxpayers many millions of dollars and protects the religious liberty of all New Jersey residents.

Morris County churches are arguing that they are entitled to taxpayer funds, even though the New Jersey Constitution specifically forbids this religious use of taxpayer funds. One of these churches sought and received a grant to allow the church’s “continued use by our congregation for worship services.” Another received funds “to ensure continued safe public access to the church for worship.”

At the heart of the lawsuit, argued in New Jersey state court, is the New Jersey Constitution’s guarantee: “nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right.” Art. I, Para. 3.

Morris County is asking the Supreme Court to extend a 2017 case, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which held that Missouri could not exclude a church-owned playground from a secular funding program. The county made the same unpersuasive arguments before the New Jersey Supreme Court, which soundly rejected the county’s arguments. The state high court crucially noted that this case “does not involve the expenditure of taxpayer money for nonreligious uses, such as the playground resurfacing in Trinity Lutheran.”

FFRF, with the help of Chemerinsky, will file a response to the county’s petition, urging the court to reject the requested review.

“We’re confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will either deny review or will accept the case only to clarify that the New Jersey Supreme Court got the case exactly right,” FFRF Co-President Dan Barker said.

Plaintiffs in the case are David Steketee, an FFRF member, and FFRF itself. In New Jersey state court, Steketee and FFRF were represented by outside counsel Paul Grosswald and FFRF attorneys Andrew Seidel and Ryan Jayne, who will continue as co-counsel. Chemerinsky is one of the most cited legal scholars of all time and has argued several cases before the Supreme Court.

The Presbyterian Church in Morristown, N.J. got $1.04 million in grants from Morris County. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the county cannot pay for the upgrades to that church (and others). The county is now trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.