Mass. Supreme Judicial Court to hear church-state funding challenge

When you subsidize something, you tend to get more of it.

Massachusetts has a Constitutional prohibition against funding churches, yet many towns have used their Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to financially support churches when doing things like building renovation. They have justified these expenditures by saying that the buildings themselves are historic, and their present use by private religious groups are not relevant. The money is following the building, not its current use.

So for years, this type of funding has been growing across the state. Acton itself has subsidized churches a couple of times already.

A few churches have not applied for or accepted this funding because they believe in the separation of church and state and/or do not want to have any strings attached to the funding which might infringe in the future on their religious freedom. Some have withdrawn their funding applications after further contemplation of the problems accepting state money could bring. But many churches would apparently rather have the money than not.

I am a plaintiff in this lawsuit challenging this funding not because I am "anti-religious" but because I agree with the state Constitution and don't want the state to be funding their preferred religious institutions and not funding others. This type of subjective funding would lead to a permanent subsidy for many but not all religious organizations.

And if the funding is confirmed by the court, it would lead to even more future subsidies, but in the future, we would certainly have religious groups who would tailor their structures and organizations to maximize this public support.

Building new church buildings could become an unusual luxury. Instead, such groups would learn that buying and renovating old buildings would allow them to apply for and receive state funding for major repair and refurbishment projects. Such structures could even be purchased, refurbished at taxpayer expense, and then sold at a substantial profit. At the very least, such subsidies would allow the members to spend their donated cash on things other than building repairs and renovation.

Once we allow the wall between church and state to crumble, we open taxpayers up to all sorts of religious subsidies. For example, why should parents who send their children to private religious schools pay double the school cost? Educating children is an obvious public expense and children can only attend one school or the other, and one could argue that it is in the public's interest that all children be educated. But if we start to directly subsidize religious schools, can those schools continue to exclude non-believers or teach viewpoints that are not allowed in the public-school classroom?

Religious groups by their nature are exclusionary. That is their right and is also guaranteed under the free exercise of their religion under the Constitution. But if taxpayers are helping to directly fund their operational expenses, shouldn't the public be let through the doors? And therefore shouldn't the public have some control over the content of what happens inside?

Churches that accept public funding are thus playing a dangerous game. It has a clear short-term benefit but it allows the state to potentially dictate what these private groups do, with their state-subsidized building, or with the activities that occur within. And once some of these groups start to rely on state funding, might they also succumb to state dictates on their future behavior? Could well connected politicians who might advance their financial requests exert influence on their organization or members?

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will be hearing oral arguments on September 7 between the group of 14 citizens of Acton and their attorneys representing Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Town of Acton. The court will decide if the Massachusetts Constitution that prohibits public funding of religious organizations will stand; or instead, if the plain wording of the Constitution that prohibits the public funding of religious groups is, itself, unenforceable.

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