Notre Dame religious liberty clinic backs lawsuit against church grant discrimination

University of Notre Dame School of Law The University of Notre Dame School of Law. | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Notre Dame School of Law’s religious liberty initiative announced its support of a federal lawsuit challenging the exclusion of houses of worship from a state historic grant program. 

The amicus brief, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in the case Mendham Methodist Church v. Morris County, argues that “excluding religious organizations from generally available grant programs” both “violates the law and harms congregations and their surrounding communities,” according to a press release from the school’s Religious Liberty Clinic. 

The lawsuit, originally filed last year, concerns a “Historic Preservation Trust Fund” run by Morris County, New Jersey. The county through that fund “distributes money to eligible organizations for the repair, restoration, and preservation of historic local buildings and resources,” the lawsuit indicates. 

For more than a decade after the fund was originally launched in 2003, churches were eligible for — and often received — funding from the trust, according to the plaintiffs. Yet the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the state constitution “bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches” there. 

The lawsuit seeks to challenge that rule and open the grant funding up to churches. In its amicus brief, meanwhile, the Notre Dame law clinic argues that the U.S. Constitution “squarely prohibits the county from excluding groups who are otherwise qualified for [public aid] merely because they happen to be religious.”

In addition to violating the law, the exclusionary grant program “threatens significant harms that can never be undone through litigation,” the brief argues. 

Facing major budgetary shortfalls, many houses of worship around the country “have been unable to adequately preserve their historic buildings or had to abandon them altogether,” the brief states. 

Religious institutions “offer irreplaceable cultural and historic value to their communities,” the filing continues. Religious communities “often anchor community life itself,” the brief states.

The law clinic cited one study that indicated the closure of Catholic schools has been shown to “lead to less socially cohesive, and more disorderly, neighborhoods.” 

Meredith Holland Kessler, a staff attorney for the Religious Liberty Clinic, said in the group’s press release that the court should “recognize the vital contributions that communities from a variety of faith traditions have made to their neighbors for centuries.”

The filing asked the court to enter a preliminary injunction against the New Jersey county to halt the denial of the grant funds.

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