The New Jersey Supreme Court on April 18 unanimously ruled that Morris County’s 16-year practice of awarding historic preservation grants to houses of worship violates the Religious Aid Clause of the state Constitution, which states, in part, that citizens cannot be compelled to pay for churches.
On May 7, the Morris County Board of Freeholders voted to retain the Becket Fund, a religious lobbying firm founded by conservative Roman Catholics, to draft an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of the county’s defeat in front of the state’s top court.
The court’s ruling sided with FFRF, which sued the county freeholders to stop the grant-giving to churches. Twelve houses of worship that received $4.6 million in 34 preservation grants between 2012 and 2015 were also named as defendants in the foundation’s lawsuit. They don’t have to return any funds but are precluded in the future from eligibility for the grants.
Becket Fund, like other similar groups, offered to represent the government “at no charge to the county.” It reportedly assured officials that “there will be no cost to county taxpayers.” As FFRF has warned governments in the past, this is a familiar bait-and-switch tactic that places all the risk on taxpayers while tricking them into thinking there is nothing to lose.
Contrary to Becket’s contention, an appeal could be a very costly endeavor for Morris County taxpayers. The Becket Fund might not charge the county, but the county will still be responsible for FFRF’s legal fees and costs, unless the United States Supreme Court decides to hear the case and to overturn the state Supreme Court’s unanimous decision. FFRF’s legal fees and costs are already nearly $250,000, a number that will climb sharply with any attempt to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Several local governments have been pushed into dire financial straits because of these “pro bono” offers from Christian-right law firms. Governments have had to take out loans, turn to crowdfunding and beg for money from national organizations such as Focus on the Family. The fundraising appeals have always fallen short, keeping the burden on the taxpayer.
That’s why Morris County taxpayers should be furious that their county unconstitutionally spent their hard-earned dollars to repair churches and have now decided to throw even more taxpayer funds into the same losing lawsuit.
The county has far better ways to spend tax revenue — and should not let a slick law firm convince it otherwise.