The town of Oak Bluffs, with the advice of the Oak Bluffs Community Preservation Committee, has appropriated, for the third time, public monies to repair the stained glass windows of the Trinity Methodist Church. These appropriations are in violation of Article 18 (as amended by Articles 46 & 103) of the amendments to the Massachusetts constitution.
This amendment prohibits using public funds, raised by taxation, to “aid or maintain” private entities unless under the “exclusive” control of public officials. Additionally the amendment categorically prohibits without exception the use of public funds to aid a church: “No such grant, appropriation or use of public money or property or loan of public credit shall be made or authorized for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society.”
To support the decision to provide public monies to repair the stained glass windows the town has made a number of claims.
First, the town claims that the Trinity Methodist Church is a historic asset. No one would disagree with that assertion. But that assertion, in and of itself, fails to qualify a church as eligible to receive public money.
Second, the town claims that repairing the church’s stained glass windows provides a direct benefit to the taxpayer. According to them, the public monies “solely assist with the restoration of a publicly viewable aspect of” the church. The taxpayers’ direct benefit is the “right to enjoy unfettered access to this architectural feature.” This means that taxpayers can walk by the church and look at it in perpetuity.
However, neither the town, the CPC nor Trinity Methodist Church can legally make that guarantee.
Since the Trinity Methodist Church sits on and is entirely surrounded by land owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (a separate private entity), only they can legally guarantee access to the church. And the Camp Meeting Association could, at any time, decide to become a gated community and eliminate all public access. (Which is exactly what they did in 1867 when they erected a seven-foot picket fence around the Camp Ground to keep out the more “worldly” members of the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company.)
This is not to say that the association would do such a thing today, but rather to point out that the Trinity Methodist Church has no legal capacity to guarantee to the Oak Bluffs taxpayer “unfettered access” in perpetuity. The town and the CPC, when they distribute public funds to private entities, should make certain that the benefits to the taxpayers are tangible, legally secured and under the control of public officers — as required by our state’s constitution.
Third, the town claims that the “funds do not directly aid the church’s religious mission.” This claim is based upon two arguments:
1. No public money is directly paid to the church (the payments go to the contractor).
2. No public funds are used by the church to aid the church’s religious mission.
These are fallacious arguments.
All building owners know conclusively that being relieved of the cost of exterior maintenance is a direct monetary benefit to the owner. The saved money can be used for other purposes. In the case of a church, since the church’s purpose is religious, the money saved will be used for religious purposes. Public funds paid to a contractor which relieves a church from the cost of building maintenance is direct financial aid to the church and therefore a direct subsidy of church’s religious mission. If A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C, and therefore an unequivocal violation of the 18th Amendment.
When a religious society designates a building as a church, i.e. as a house of worship, the building becomes intrinsically attached and inseparable from the religious mission of the church. The exterior of a church cannot, by a mere turn of phrase, be detached from the religious activities that occur inside the church. The exterior is not a separate entity, such as a church-owned hospital, with a separate and distinct mission, it is the church itself.
The town and the CPC want us to believe that the repair to the stained glass windows is merely an architectural repair; that the external perception of the windows is paramount and supersedes the interior experience of the windows; that the exterior of a church is a separate entity unto itself; that the exterior is completely disentangled from the religious activities of the church. According to their logic, the church exterior becomes a quasi-public asset maintained by the taxpayers, while the church interior remains a separate private religious entity — illogic made manifest.
Finally, let us not forget that the Trinity Methodist Church, as a house of worship, is exempt from taxation. They are not required to contribute to the public activities (schools, police, fire, roads, parks, transportation, library, etc.) that the taxpayers of Oak Bluffs have collectively determined to be of a public nature. In America, we exempt churches from taxation because we believe in the free exercise of religion. (No majority religion can tax another religion into oblivion.) But a necessary complement to being relieved of the burden of taxation is to forgo seeking public funds.
There is an idea, deeply embedded in the American way, that no person should be compelled by taxation to maintain a religion of which he/she is not a communicant. It violates one’s religious conscience. This idea is the bedrock of our religious freedom. It is a foundational American concept that has made possible the uniquely American experience of peaceful coexistence between diverse religious sects for more than 200 years. As the 18th, 19th and 20th century American would have considered maintaining a church with public funds as unseemly — so should we in the 21st century.
The writer is the lead plaintiff in a court case against the town of Oak Bluffs over the use of CPC money for the church window project. In November a superior court judge denied a motion from the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction.