Supreme Court won't take New Jersey church case

Three of the court's conservatives said the broader issue of whether states could deny historic preservation funds to churches must be addressed in some future case.
Image: The Supreme Court in Washington on Jan. 22, 2018.
The Supreme Court in Washington on Jan. 22, 2018.Carlos Barria / Reuters file

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a legal dispute from New Jersey over the use of state tax money to repair churches. But three of the court's conservatives said the broader issue must be addressed in some future case.

Monday's case involved Morris County's distribution of historic preservation funds to help repair and maintain local buildings. The county included churches in the program, such as the Presbyterian Church in Morristown which dates to 1740. County officials said many of the churches reflect the history and character of the area.

But the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that providing the funds to churches violated a provision of the state's Constitution, which says that no person shall be obligated to pay taxes "for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry."

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, said New Jersey's law appeared to violate the U.S. Constitution. "Barring religious organizations because they are religious from a general historic preservation grants program is pure discrimination against religion."

They noted that in the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a Tennessee law barring ministers from serving as delegates to the state's constitutional convention, ruled that a New York school district cannot refuse to let a religious organization use a public high school, and reversed a Missouri law that prevented a Lutheran school from getting state funds to make playgrounds safer.

The three justices said the court was right to pass up the New Jersey case, because the details of the Morris County program were unclear. But they added, "At some point, this court will need to decide whether governments that distribute historic preservation funds may deny funds to religious organizations simply because the organizations are religious."