Plaintiffs in church-state lawsuit win on all three arguments


On March 9, the Supreme Judicial Court handed down an important ruling in the lawsuit filed by 13 Acton taxpayers objecting to Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding of a church. The church was awarded two CPA grants totaling about $100,000 to restore stained-glass windows, including some with religious imagery, and to hire a consultant to create a Master Plan which would be used in planning maintenance and restoration projects for the church and two historic private homes owned by the church. The 13 taxpayers and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sued to prevent the awards.

In a blog post on the Americans United website (see https://www.au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/what-really-happened-in-the-mass-tax-aid-to-churches-lawsuit), lawyers for the plaintiffs show how their side effectively prevailed at the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), winning all major points the group argued, despite claims in the Boston Globe by the Town of Acton's attorney of a "partial victory."

The SJC granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction against funding the stained glass windows. "The five justices found that at trial the taxpayers are likely to succeed on the merits of their case regarding this grant," said the attorneys.

The Master Plan grant must be scrutinized much more carefully, and apply the same reasoning and three-part test to determine if all or any part of the funding is legal. The court said the plaintiffs were entitled to discovery and the Superior Court was wrong to not allow it before deciding on the preliminary injunction. Should the town continue to insist on fighting the lawsuit, plaintiffs will use discovery to gather evidence to bolster their argument that both grants have the purpose and effect of aiding the church.

The SJC found that the Anti-Aid Amendment’s ban on funding churches must be interpreted in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran v Comer. Yet the bar to funding religious groups remains high. "[T]he anti-aid amendment does not impose a categorical ban on a grant of public funds to a church solely because it is a church. However, [the SJC] made it clear that tax funds cannot go for explicitly religious purposes, which in this case included the renovation of a stained-glass window including religious imagery," the attorneys wrote.

The blog post explained that while the decision does not categorically ban aid to churches, neither does it categorically permit it.

"The SJC has strongly suggested that the closer the funding comes to the religious functions of the church, the more scrutiny it should receive from the courts, an approach that is consistent with how the U.S. Supreme Court limited its decision on the distribution of government money to churches in its recent Trinity Lutheran v. Comer decision."

Acton's attorney Nina Pickering-Cook was quoted as saying to the Boston Globe, “We are confident the town will ultimately prevail.” This is despite the fact that the SJC ruled that the taxpayers are entitled to an injunction against the stained glass window grant, to have the trial court closely scrutinize the master plan grant and to obtain discovery—all positions advanced by the taxpayers and opposed by the Town. The case has been remanded back to Superior Court for further consideration and discovery, which will include at least one deposition and document request.

The state house news service quotes Attorney Pickering-Cook as estimating that her firm has spent upwards of $100,000 so far defending the case. "The legal costs have 'eclipsed' the amount of the [church's CPA] grants," she said. It is unknown if the town will continue to litigate this matter now that at least half of the award has been blocked and the other half will face much higher scrutiny, according to the ruling.

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