Acton should give up the fight to spend public funds on churches

(I am one of 13 Acton taxpayers, represented by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, objecting to CPA grants to an Acton church to preserve its stained glass windows and pay for a Master Plan for renovating its church and other properties. The taxpayers filed suit to prevent the CPA awards and won a significant preliminary victory at the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). My opinion is my own and I am not speaking for the group of taxpayers or their attorneys.)

Acton citizens should urge the Board of Selectmen to concede defeat in their attempt to spend taxpayer funds to support religious activities and stop wasting money on legal fees. According to Town Counsel Nina Pickering-Cook who is one of the attorneys representing Acton, her firm has already billed over $100,000 in fees. Acton may also eventually be ordered to pay attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by the plaintiffs attorneys who have rightly objected to the illegal funding of religious organizations.

After the SJC ordered a preliminary injunction to stop the stained glass window grant and that the Master Plan grant must be closely scrutinized, it makes no sense to continue this fight when the legal fees have already exceeded the proposed CPA grants and these costs will continue to escalate as this starts up again in a lower court with discovery and document requests still to come.

Looking at spending money efficiently, this also makes no sense to continue. The maximum that could reasonably be awarded now is zero for the stained-glass windows and $50k for the Master Plan. If say half of the Master Plan is ruled ineligible, then the award could end up at $25k. Should the Town now spend another $100k in legal fees in order to fund a $25k portion of a project? That would mean spending $200k for a $25k award. That isn't being fiscally responsible.

Does the Acton Congregational Church support the public spending another $100k in taxpayer funds so they can get a $25k or $50k subsidy?

The SJC ruling calls into question future CPA funding of religious projects around the state, and while it was perhaps understandable for Acton to be willing to defend its awards given a Town Meeting vote to approve them, Acton taxpayers have not authorized spending "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to continue the pursuit. Once the legal fees have "eclipsed" (to use Town Counsel's phrase) the amount of the awards, it is reasonable to question whether the Selectmen should approve exceeding the amount of spending approved by Town Meeting. To put it another way, would Town Meeting have approved $200,000 or $300,000 for church renovations? If not, then the Town would be ill-advised to spend such a large sum to defend a $100,000 initial appropriation (which is now likely down to at most half that.)

Perhaps a more important point is that the Town and its Community Preservation Committee were simply wrong in approving the funding in the first place. Citizens have objected at Town Meeting and elsewhere when we have used public funds to improve churches or privately owned buildings with historic significance. I have objected several times to this, including the funding of the renovations of the Powers Art Gallery and Exchange Hall, both owned by private parties and both successful in receiving taxpayer money for renovations and upkeep. And I distinctly recall at least one speaker who objected to a prior CPA award given to a church based on these very same grounds, namely the prohibition on the state funding churches and the separation of church and state.

Town leaders chose to ignore those past warnings and proceed anyway. But now that part of the funding has been stopped, and the rest is questionable, perhaps a rethinking is in order. Maybe throwing good money after bad isn't what Acton's taxpayers would support?

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