Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

No More Grants to Historic Churches

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

No More Grants to Historic Churches

Article excerpt

A New Jersey Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday found the use of taxpayer dollars to restore historic churches unconstitutional — and preservationists in North Jersey say the decision could strike a blow in communities where historic churches exist.

The court ruled that Morris County's long-standing practice of giving taxpayer-funded historic preservation grants to churches, totaling $4.6 million in public aid, violated the New Jersey Constitution. The ruling reversed a lower court decision and precludes churches from benefiting from the grant program.

It means churches in New Jersey will now have to look elsewhere for funding to restore or repair buildings.

Preservationists say a historic church's inability to access public funding could potentially lead to a loss of history in communities where those institutions function as landmarks that add character, beyond their roles as houses of worship.

"I feel that it will have a detrimental effect on the character of municipalities," said Tim Adriance, considered a leader in historic preservation in Bergen County. "I understand the argument to keep the distinction [between church and state]. But architecture is part of our community and belongs to all the people, not only the congregants."

He pointed to the First Dutch Reformed Church of Hackensack, also known as the Church on the Green, which he described as "the center of our county."

The property "contributes to the historic center of Bergen County," said Adriance. "Because the church is small and might not be able to raise funds, it could be lost one day, and that's a loss to our community. That's an unfortunate result from this court ruling."

Rod Leith, the Rutherford borough historian and vice chairman of the Rutherford Historic Preservation Committee, said churches are among the borough's oldest historic structures. Their significance, from his perspective, is architectural, not religious. That's why the committee hosted a lecture series on "Houses of Worship."

"We didn't feel we were supporting religion; we were promoting and supporting historic preservation," Leith said of the lecture series. "This [court] decision is unfortunate because we look at the churches, especially in Rutherford, as examples of historic preservation. Are you going to allow these buildings to fall down, or are you going to help them?"

The Supreme Court decision does not call for churches that received grants to repay the funds, but financial effects could be felt down the road.

"I can foresee a lot of counties sort of amending how they do their grants and limiting it to a more secular purpose," Frank Marshall, staff attorney for the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said Wednesday. "If religious institutions are precluded from receiving that funding, then that means a bigger piece of the pie can go towards municipalities. …

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