SJC issues ruling against Acton in Church-State lawsuit

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has issued their ruling in the Church-State separation case filed by 13 Acton residents (including the author of this article). The lawsuit argued that CPA funding of Acton "historic" churches was unconstitutional because the Massachusetts constitution prohibited such funding.

The Town of Acton argued that the funding was for historic preservation, that it had been done hundreds of times around the state, and that churches and other such organizations should not be barred from receiving state funds if towns had historic-preservation purposes in mind for the use of the public money.

The SJC has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and granted them a preliminary injunction preventing the Town of Acton from funding renovations to church stained-glass windows using CPA funds. As to other uses, like for a "master plan" which would study and recommend other church preservation projects, the SJC ordered that these issues be decided by a lower court in light of the SJC ruling.

Plaintiffs had argued that the plain-word prohibition of church funding in the Massachusetts Constitution should be upheld. The SJC decided that was not correct; that the three-part test for whether the funding is permissible should be applied, but that the preliminary ruling by a lower court was incorrect in how it applied the three-part test.

The ruling can be read here:

Page 44-46: "In this case, having weighed and balanced the three factors, we conclude that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim with respect to the stained glass grant. Although the record before us does not allow us to ascertain whether there is a motivating purpose behind this grant other than historic preservation, its effect is to substantially aid the church in its essential function and, given the explicit religious imagery of the stained glass, it fails to avoid the very risks that the framers of the anti-aid amendment hoped to avoid," the ruling stated.

"With respect to the Master Plan grant, we conclude that further discovery is needed before a determination should be made as to whether the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim...." The SJC ruled that renovating private houses are more likely to be valid than church buildings themselves.

Two justices wrote a concurring opinion and one justice dissented, which appear at the end of the ruling.

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