Supreme Court refuses to hear church requests for historic preservation funds
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider whether churches and other religious institutions should be able to receive public taxpayer funds for historic preservation.
The action stopped short of extending the justices' 2017 ruling that churches can be eligible for purely secular grant programs such as playground renovations.
New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled unanimously last year that religious institutions were ineligible for government funds under the New Jersey Constitution. The state justices reached that conclusion despite the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Missouri playground case the year before.
The Supreme Court's action apparently was unanimous, but three conservative justices registered their concern that the lower court decision "is in serious tension with this Court’s religious equality precedents."
"At some point, this court will need to decide whether governments that distribute historic preservation funds may deny funds to religious organizations simply because the organizations are religious," Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote. Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch agreed.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the high court's 7-2 opinion in the 2017 playground case, which included a footnote that some interpreted as limiting its applicability to playgrounds. Even so, it had implications for as many as 39 states with constitutional provisions that block public funds from going to religious organizations.
"The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution," Roberts wrote then.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor vehemently dissented from that decision, which she said "discounts centuries of history and jeopardizes the government's ability to remain secular." She was joined by Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg but not the high court's other two liberal justices.
The court could have chosen to hear the appeal from Morris County, N.J., or it could have reversed the lower court and allowed the funding.
Another major case on the separation of church and state also is before the justices: Whether a 40-foot Latin cross that towers over a small Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., violates the Constitution, even though it was built as a memorial to World War I veterans. A ruling on that case is expected by June.