Public funds can't be used to repair church's stained glass windows, Massachusetts Supreme Court rules

(Pixabay/nataliaaggiato)Representative image: The Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled that a church cannot use public funds to repair its historic stained glass windows.

A historic church in Massachusetts can receive taxpayer money in some circumstances, but it is not allowed to use the funds to preserve its stained glass windows, the state's high court has ruled.

In a ruling issued on Friday, the high court clarified conditions under which religious institutions can receive public funds in a case brought by a group of residents opposing preservation grants for a local church in Acton.

In 2016, Acton Town Meeting members approved Community Preservation Act grants amounting to $51,237 for the restoration of the stained glass windows of Acton Congregational Church.

Another $49,500 was given to the church to develop a master plan to study the structural integrity of its main building and two adjacent houses that it rents out, The Boston Globe reported.

Local residents, represented by the Washington-based organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State, opposed the grants, arguing that giving taxpayer money to the church violated the constitution.

The town, on the other hand, contended that the grants are not unconstitutional because it is supporting the preservation of a historic structure, not furthering a religious purpose. Attorneys representing the town pointed out that more than 300 projects involving religious institutions have already been funded through the state preservation program.

A Superior Court judge had previously denied the residents' request to block the grants while the litigation was pending. However, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed the order, granting the plaintiff's request to block the payments as the court proceedings continue.

The Supreme Court has asked the lower court to consider three factors when examining the constitutionality of such grants.

The high court stated that the judge must consider "whether a motivating purpose of each grant is to aid the church, whether the grant will have the effect of substantially aiding the church and whether the grant avoids the risks of the political and economic abuses that prompted passage of the anti-aid amendment."

SJC Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote in his ruling that public funds can be given to churches lawfully for historic preservation in certain cases, such as when "historical events of great significance occurred in the church, or where the grants are limited to preserving church property with a primarily secular purpose."

However, the judge cautioned that the grants in the Acton case could violate the rights of town residents who do not adhere to the church's beliefs.

Gants said that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in challenging the stained glass grant, but added that "further discovery" is required for assessing the master plan grant.

Eric Rothschild, an attorney with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that the plaintiffs were pleased with the decision.

"The court's decision could be fairly read as urging the trial court to pay attention to the extent this money is going to the core of the church, the sanctuary," he said.

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