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How important is FFRF’s Morris County victory?

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Winning any court case is a big deal. Even more so when it concerns a fundamental right, such as religious liberty or state-church separation. Winning a case that you’ve been working on for six years is particularly satisfying. Combining all those ingredients in a 7-0 win at a state supreme court level creates a deep well of satisfaction that can be drawn on for a lifetime.

But none of the personal twaddle means the case is important. Or that it has a big impact. However, FFRF’s case against Morris County, in which we successfully blocked millions of taxpayer dollars flowing to churches, is particularly meaningful, given a concerted attack against state constitutional provisions barring taxpayer aid to churches.

700X356 morris county How important is FFRF's Morris County victory?
David Steketee joined FFRF as plaintiffs in the successful legal challenge.

The case.

David Steketee, our plaintiff, first contacted FFRF on July 13, 2012, and his complaint came to me. We began our investigation but held off suing for quite a while. During those years investigating facts and lining up evidence, other FFRF attorneys and legal fellows got involved, including Ryan Jayne, who ended up litigating the case with me, and Paul Grosswald, our New Jersey attorney.

FFRF and Steketee challenged about $5 million in taxpayer funding to repair churches in one New Jersey county alone. FFRF contended the grants violated the unambiguous command of Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, which guarantees:

“nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right.”

This taxpayer protection predates the creation of the United States and was seen by the Founders as a fundamental right of citizens.

Despite that clear language — no taxes for repairing any church—the district court held that the grants were just fine. We appealed, and the county and churches asked the N.J. Supreme Court to bypass the intermediate appellate court and take the case. It agreed — and then handed the churches and county a resounding defeat.

But given that this is a case in New Jersey state court, how big an impact can it really have? Well, pretty big, as it turns out.

A quarter of a billion dollars.

Obviously, the financial impact is enormous. About $5 million went to churches over four years in one county. But this decision applies to all 21 New Jersey counties. Assuming that Morris County is a fair representation of the other counties, New Jersey taxpayers are saving more than $250,000,000 over the next decade. You’re welcome.

Legal impact.

This case was about the New Jersey Constitution. In fact, the county and churches tried to remove the case to federal court (a move we opposed), and the federal court kicked it back because it did not have jurisdiction. Though the case invoked the New Jersey No Aid Clause (also known as the Compelled Support Clause and lately mislabeled as a Blaine Amendment), such clauses exist in many other states.

The ripples from this decision will travel beyond New Jersey’s boundaries. Three broader impacts are immediately clear.

First, this unanimous, thoughtful, exhaustive 7-0 opinion clearly shows the limits of the more cursory recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Trinity Lutheran. The New Jersey decision specifically mentions the footnote in the Trinity Lutheran case that FFRF believed and argued should narrowly limit the holding: “The [U.S. Supreme Court’s] holding of Trinity Lutheran does not encompass the direct use of taxpayer funds to repair churches and thereby sustain religious worship activities. See 137 S. Ct. at 2024 n.3.” This is important because other courts looking at this issue now have a counterbalance to that bad decision. FFRF v. Morris County provides a far more persuasive argument about government funding of religion, which is the second point.

This decision reaffirms that citizens hold a right, founded in religious freedom, not to be taxed for the support of a church. It rejects the modern narrative, which argues that churches have a right to access government funds. The court reaffirmed an incredibly important principle: that the government may not tax citizens to benefit a religion. Let the faithful voluntarily support their own faith.

Put another way, the religious freedom at issue in this case does not lie with the churches, but with citizens like David Steketee. That right guarantees that the coercive taxing power of the government may not be wielded to oblige Muslims to bankroll temples and yeshivas, or to compel Jews to subsidize Christian churches and Catholic schools, or to force Christians to fund mosques and madrassas, or force nonbelievers to support any faith.

Thirdly, this decision is a building block in the wall of separation that will help other courts understand that funding the repair of an active church is necessarily funding the worship that occurs in that church.

This fact might seem obvious, but the Trinity Lutheran decision did much to muddy the waters on this issue. The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously offers some much-needed clarity.

National outlook.

Since Trinity Lutheran, the compelled support clauses in state constitutions have been under attack. Shortly after the case, I testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Colorado Advisory Committee on “the Colorado Constitution’s No Aid Clause and its Impact in Colorado” and whether the clause is worth keeping. Earlier this year, I submitted testimony to Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission, which had proposed a repeal of Florida’s compelled support clause. That proposal, happily, died two weeks ago. Last month, the Massachusetts Supreme Court also upheld that state’s no aid clause in the face of a Trinity Lutheran-like challenge.

The dissenting and concurring justices in Trinity Lutheran thought the case confused an already convoluted area of law and, more importantly, placed Americans’ freedom of religion in jeopardy by trampling the wall of separation between state and church. The New Jersey Supreme Court, at least, has unanimously shown that Trinity Lutheran must be read as an extremely narrow exception, rather than as a general entitlement of churches to taxpayer dollars.

The tide is turning against that reckless Supreme Court decision — and this win dramatically accelerates that trend. The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s legal team is defending and strengthening the wall of separation.

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