Court finds Morris County violated N.J. Constitution in funding church repairs

First Presbyterian Church Boonton was one of the defendants in the legal case that challenged Morris County's use of public funds for church renovations. (Google Street View image)

First Presbyterian Church Boonton was one of the defendants in the legal case that challenged Morris County's use of public funds for church renovations. (Google Street View image)

Historic preservation advocates say a decision by New Jersey’s highest court will make it difficult for churches to get the money they need to renovate their architecturally significant structures.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that New Jersey’s constitution prohibits using taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches.

Courtenay Mercer, the director of Preservation New Jersey, said churches often appear on the group’s annual list of the 10 most endangered historical places in the state.

“This is going to increase that number probably over the years. We fear for the very many historic churches in New Jersey that are already of great need of rehabilitation and this is certainly another hurdle in their way,” she said.

Mercer said a dwindling number of parishioners means many churches don’t have financial support for renovations.

The court ruling means they’ll have to find other ways to raise money to rehabilitate their historic buildings.

“It might have to be private foundation funds, more aggressive fundraising within the community. Obviously this is a big hit to not be able to get state grants,” said Mercer.

The state Supreme Court ruled in the case of Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Morris County Board of Freeholders, which arose after that county provided taxpayer-funded grants for renovations at 12 churches — including the First Presbyterian Church Boonton.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation and David Steketee, a member of the group and a Morris County resident, successfully argued that the New Jersey Constitution’s Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds for church repairs.

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