Acton taxpayers win CPA-church-funding lawsuit

(The article below is written by one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed to prevent the Town of Acton from funding church projects through the Community Preservation Act (CPA) program. The views below are the personal opinions of the author who does not speak for the other plaintiffs or their counsel, Americans United.)

Thirteen Acton plaintiffs opposed to funding church expenses through the Town's CPA fund have won a final legal victory in the state's Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), with the Town of Acton withdrawing from the case after the Acton Congregational Church dropped its funding requests, making the matter moot. The SJC had ruled that the citizen plaintiffs were likely to prevail in court and had issued an injunction against the funding. The withdrawal ends the case leaving the injunction intact.

According to Acton Town Manager John Mangiaratti, the Town has spent a total of $253,976 defending the case. He declined to comment on behalf of the Town about the SJC decision.

The Town had originally approved three CPA projects for two churches totaling about $100,000. The Town agreed to place the funding on hold while the case was litigated. The plaintiffs were represented pro bono by the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU).

The Town of Acton argued that the churches were historical and that the Community Preservation Act allowed for historical funding regardless of the recipient. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Trinity Lutheran) allowing some church playgrounds to receive benefits from certain public programs despite a similar state of Missouri religious-funding prohibition gave the Town's position hope, but the Massachusetts SJC ruled otherwise.

When the lawsuit was originally filed, a lower court ruled in the Town's favor, arguing that the three-part test to determine eligibility would likely be in the Town's favor, but the plaintiffs appealed and the parties agreed to expedite the case to the SJC. Plaintiffs had argued that the plain wording in the Constitution prohibiting funding of churches should settle the matter, but if the three-part test must be used, the request would still fall short. The SJC did in fact use the three-part test, agreeing with the Town, but determined the plaintiffs would likely prevail under the test and issued the injunction.

The Town of Acton's CPA fund had committed about $100,000 for the church improvement projects, but the South Acton Congregational Church dropped its roof-repair request when the lawsuit was announced, and the Acton Congregational Church has withdrawn its two requests after the SJC preliminary injunction was granted to the plaintiffs. One project was to refurbish a stained-glass window, and a second was a master plan for building preservation. A copy of the withdrawal letter is available here: http://www.actonforum.com/sites/default/files/ACC_withdrawal_letter

Alex Luchenitser, the Associate Legal Director for AU, said, "Public funds should never be used to support religious imagery or worship. That’s why Americans United for Separation of Church and State, together with our pro bono counsel Douglas Mishkin, represented thirteen Acton taxpayers in a challenge to three proposed Town of Acton grants of historical-preservation funds to two churches. Ultimately, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court concluded that one of these grants—which would have paid for restoration of stained-glass windows with religious imagery—was very likely prohibited by the Massachusetts Constitution. The Court also concluded that a second grant, which would have funded a master plan for restoration of other aspects of a church, had to be subjected to rigorous constitutional scrutiny. The church subsequently withdrew its application for that grant."

"The Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling is an important precedent that applies to all governmental bodies in Massachusetts. It establishes that public funds must not be used to support the religious aspects or functions of a house of worship, even if the moneys also support historical preservation. Governmental bodies in Massachusetts should pay careful heed to the teachings of this case when deciding how to award historical preservation funds in the future," Luchenitser said.

Acton Forum editors Allen Nitschelm and Scott Smyers were among the 13 Acton plaintiffs.

The SJC decision, Caplan v. Town of Acton, can be read here: https://law.justia.com/cases/massachusetts/supreme-court/2018/sjc-12274.html

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