Historic New Jersey Churches Challenge County Grant Exclusion

Historic New Jersey Churches Challenge County Grant Exclusion

Two New Jersey churches have filed a federal lawsuit after being shut out from a grant program that preserves and restores historic sites. 

The Mendham Methodist Church and The Zion Lutheran Church Long Valley are suing Morris County, New Jersey, due to a policy that prohibits religious institutions from being recipients of the Morris County Historic Preservation Trust Fund. 

In 2018—reportedly despite county wishes—the churches were blocked from receiving grant funding after the New Jersey Supreme Court declared its constitution bans taxpayer dollars from going toward the restoration of historic faith-based buildings. The churches still applied for funding but were denied. 

This occurred after historic churches in Morris County had received $4.6 million of public assistance since the program’s start in 2003. The aid helped repair dilapidated roofs, bell towers and stained-glass windows.

First Liberty Institute is representing the churches’ case and is requesting a change in policy. 

“This is unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of religion: States and local governments that choose to provide a generally available public benefit—such as historic preservation grants—cannot exclude an otherwise-qualified applicant solely because the applicant happens to be a house of worship,” stated First Liberty attorneys.

Both churches have a long history in Morris County. The Mendham Methodist Church was first established in 1833, one year after The Zion Lutheran Church was founded. In the late 1930s, Mendham Methodist’s foundation was moved to its current location, where it offers worship services and hosts community events. In addition to its church services, Zion Lutheran also welcomes public gatherings like Alcoholics Anonymous and Girl Scout functions. 

Meanwhile, other Morris County historic buildings that have private meetings and purposes have continued to benefit from the grant program, such as a local theater, lodge and restaurant. 

“Excluding churches from participating in the grant program isn’t just in violation of the Constitution,” said First Liberty in an article on its website. “It’s a disservice to the local community. The architecture of historic houses of worship are seen by all citizens and residents. Restoring and preserving historic churches enriches everyone, not just the congregants.”

First Liberty attorney Jeremy Dys stated: “The Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that religious institutions cannot be excluded from public funding programs like preservation grants simply because of their religious character or religious activities.”

Photo courtesy of First Liberty Institute

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