State Supreme Court Says Tax Dollars Can't Repair Church's Historic Stained Glass Windows

(Photo: Facebook/Acton Congregational Church)Light shines through the stained glass windows at Acton Congregational Church in Acton, Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled that one of the nation's leading secularist legal groups is "entitled" to an injunction barring the town government in Acton from granting public funds to preserve stained glass windows in a church that has been a staple of the town since 1846.

The state's high court last Friday vacated a Suprerior Court ruling against Americans United for Separation of Church and State and asked the lower court to reconsider the group's request for preliminary injunction banning the Acton municipal government from awarding tax dollars to Acton Congregational Church to preserve its stained glass windows.

"[W]e conclude that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim with respect to the stained glass grant," Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote in the ruling. "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 [of the Massachusetts Constitution] hoped to avoid."

According to court documents, the church requested $51,237 under the state's Community Preservation Act to fund the restoration and preservation of the windows featured in the church's main building, which were installed in 1898. The grant was approved after the a vote from the town's preservation committee.

The most prominent of the windows depicts Jesus and a kneeling woman, while another features and a cross and the words "Rock of Ages Cleft for Me."

"[W]e remand the case to the Superior Court for entry of an order allowing the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction barring disbursement of the grant," the court ruling states.

At the heart of the case are two grants totaling about $100,000 to the church.

While the first grant was to preserve the stained glass windows, a second grant to the church approved by the town committee totaling $49,500 would fund the creation of a master plan to study the structural integrity of the church and two buildings belonging to the church for historical preservation.

Local residents being represented by Americans United opposed the grants because they felt they were an illegal entanglement between government and religion.

The high court's ruling was less specific about how the lower court should rule regarding the grant for the master plan, indicating that it was not imposing a "categorical ban" on public funding for religious institutions.

The Supreme Court asked the lower court to consider three factors: "whether the purpose of the challenged statute is to aid private schools; whether the statute does in fact substantially aid such schools; and whether the statute avoids the political and economic abuses ..."

The state Supreme Court ruled that the lower court judge improperly weighed these factors in the initial ruling in favor of the church. 

"We do not interpret the Massachusetts anti-aid amendment to impose a categorical ban on the grant of public funds to a church 'solely because it is a church,'" the ruling explains, citing the 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling in the Trinity Lutheran case of 2017. "Rather, under our three-factor test, whether a church can receive such a grant depends on the grant's purpose, effect, and the risk that its award might trigger the risks that prompted the passage of the anti-aid amendment."

Town attorney Nina Pickering-Cook told the Associated Press that she is "confident the town will ultimately prevail."

The court's ruling was celebrated by Americans United attorney Eric Rothschild.

"The court's decision could be fairly read as urging the trial court to pay attention to the extent this money is going to the core of the church, the sanctuary," Rothschild told AP.

The town's attorneys have argued that providing such funding to the church is not a violation of the Constitution because it serves the secular purpose of preserving the historic structure.

The town attorneys also noted that there are over 300 projects involving religious institutions that have been funded through state preservation programs.

According to WBUR, the church sits at the heart of Acton along with the town hall.

"It's got a lot of history, and regardless of what church it is, what denomination it is, if it's in a building that is history, I'm all for that," resident Jackie Stanton told WBUR as she left Sunday services.

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