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New Jersey Churches Excluded from Historic Preservation Grant Sue County for Religious Discrimination

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April 28, 2023

News Release
 For Immediate Release: 4.28.23
Contact: Peyton Luke, media@firstliberty.org
Direct: 972-941-4454

New Jersey Churches Excluded from Historic Preservation Grant
Sue County for Religious Discrimination

Churches sue for religious discrimination and unequal treatment following
exclusion from grant funds, which were formerly allowed

Trenton, NJ—First Liberty Institute, Jones Day, and the Pepperdine Religious Liberty Clinic filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of The Mendham Methodist Church and The Zion Lutheran Church Long Valley in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey against Morris County.  The suit challenges the County’s change of policy to exclude churches from the Morris County Historic Preservation Trust Fund.  While centuries-old churches are excluded from the historic preservation program, grant recipients have included a theater, a Masonic lodge, and a restaurant.

A copy of the complaint can be found here.

“All forms of religious discrimination by the government are unconstitutional, including the denial of historic preservation grants to historic churches,” said Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel with First Liberty Institute. “The Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that religious institutions cannot be excluded from public funding programs like preservation grants simply because of their religious character or religious activities.”

In 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Morris County’s long-standing practice of providing historic preservation grants to churches violated the New Jersey Constitution. The ruling reversed a lower court decision, and it precludes churches from benefiting from the grant program. Morris County then implemented that court ruling through a policy change that prohibits churches from participating in the program. However, since that time, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the federal Constitution prohibits the exclusion of religious institutions from generally available public funding programs simply because of their religious character or religious activities. States and local governments that choose to provide a generally available public benefit — such as historic preservation grants — cannot exclude an otherwise-qualified applicant solely because the applicant happens to be, and operate as, a house of worship. The grants are about promoting and supporting historic preservation. Restoring and preserving historic churches enriches the entire community.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court denied an application to hear the case the case in 2019, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, said New Jersey’s law appeared to violate the U.S. Constitution in a dissent from denial of cert. “Barring religious organizations because they are religious from a general historic preservation grants program is pure discrimination against religion.”

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Peyton Luke at media@firstliberty.org.

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