In a court case that takes up the issue of whether public money can be spent on historic preservation of churches, a group of Oak Bluffs residents have gone to court to try to block the town from spending Community Preservation Act money on the restoration of Trinity Methodist Church.
Brian Hughes and nine other Oak Bluffs taxpayers have filed a motion in Dukes County Superior Court against the town and the Oak Bluffs community preservation committee seeking an injunction against spending community preservation money on the church restoration.
The issue was heard in court on Nov. 6, and a decision from a judge is expected soon. The hearing was held in New Bedford because Dukes County superior court sessions are held only twice a year, in October and April.
At issue is $32,000 that town meeting voters approved in April 2013 to restore stained glass windows at the Methodist church.
The funding comes from the Community Preservation Act, which was signed into law in 2000. The act allows towns to levy a surcharge of up to three per cent on property taxes to raise money for open space, historic preservation, affordable housing and outdoor recreation.
The act must be adopted by a ballot referendum, and each community creates a community preservation committee to recommend projects for town meeting approval. The state matches part of the money raised.
On the Vineyard, the Community Preservation Act has been adopted by all six towns.
Some towns on the Island and in the state have used Community Preservation Act money for churches. Edgartown has approved funding for repairs to stained glass windows at Saint Andrew’s Church and the restoration of the bell at the Old Whaling Church, while Tisbury has spent community preservation funds on stained glass windows at the First Baptist Church. In West Tisbury, town meeting voters approved spending $30,000 on engineering and architectural studies for restoration of the First Congregational Church.
Elsewhere in the state community preservation money has been spent on a variety of church projects, including repairs to the bell tower at the Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole, reproducing a historic weathervane at First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, and restoration of the United Methodist Church on Nantucket.
Oak Bluffs has also previously allocated community preservation funds to churches, though not without concerns. In 2009 town meeting voters approved spending community preservation money on the same stained glass windows at Trinity Methodist Church, and they also approved $24,000 for repairs to clerestory windows at the Tabernacle.
In 2009 the expenditures raised some concern. Members of the town finance committee voted 4-1 not to recommend the projects, citing concerns about spending community preservation money on private buildings, especially churches. The town meeting approved the church repairs.
The complaint filed this year, signed by resident Brian P. Hughes and nine others, seeks injunctive relief against the town “arising from the town’s violation of the Massachusetts Constitution by appropriating public monies raised by taxation to aid and maintain a church.”
The plaintiffs argue that using public money to repair the church windows violates the Massachusetts constitution, which prohibits the state and towns from using public money to fund or maintain a charitable or religious undertaking. The complaint adds that the action is prohibited by the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
“Both the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Constitution of the United States prohibit the maintenance of an active church with monies raised by taxation,” Mr. Hughes said in an email to the Gazette. “The separation of church and state is a fundamental concept of our country. It is one of the reasons (among many) that has contributed to the longevity and durability of our democracy. The separation of church and state allows all religions to flourish without the strife and persecution found in many countries in the world. This is the very same strife and persecution that was common in Europe at the time when the Pilgrims fled to America and which has caused numerous religious wars for centuries.”
While Oak Bluffs has spent community preservation money on churches in the past, Mr. Hughes said he filed the lawsuit this year “precisely because of the repeated funding of the maintenance of churches and religious institutions in Oak Bluffs and throughout Massachusetts.”
“There seems to be no end in sight,” he continued. “One can imagine that eventually every old church in Massachusetts will seek to maintain its physical structure with public monies. There is a significant difference between a sectarian entity raising money voluntarily from the general public to preserve an historic church and compelling citizens to maintain a church through taxation.”
The court documents ask the judge to issue a preliminary injunction “restraining the town of Oak Bluffs and the preservation committee from taking any action that involves the use or distribution of public funds for the repair, restoration or renovation of the church windows or other property or fixtures of the Trinity Methodist Church.”
In a brief opposing the motion for an injunction, town counsel Michael Goldsmith wrote that the church is located on the Camp Ground, which is listed on the State Register of Historic Places.
“The church is a historic asset, is located within a state registered historic resource, and the town has voted a modicum of funds to support the restoration and rehabilitation of its stained glass windows. The funds do not directly aid the Church’s mission, but rather are earmarked solely to assist with the restoring of the deteriorated and failing windows—a facet of the building available for viewing by the public at large,” Mr. Goldsmith wrote.
The document further notes that the Massachusetts Historical Commission, a state agency, has funded about 12 rehabilitation projects on historic churches and the town has secured a preservation restriction that requires the church to use the money only for window repair and ensures that the windows have to be retained in their restored form if the building is changed.
The letter notes that there are no Massachusetts cases that deal directly with municipal grants to religious groups for renovation of historic churches.
“The issue raised in this case is an important one because the voters in several Island towns have elected to approve CPA appropriations to restore the exteriors of historically significant churches,” Mr. Goldsmith told the Gazette in an email.
“The Department of Revenue has consistently advised us that these appropriations — if administered correctly as the OB CPC has done here — are consistent with the anti-aid amendment to the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. The Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice has also published a memorandum opining that similar grants under the National Historic Preservation Act, including an award to repair windows on the Old North Church in Boston, pass muster under the First Amendment.”