Historic Preservation Grants to Churches Makes Waves in Morris County

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

The Presbyterian Church in Morristown’s Parish House has a place of prominence on South Street. This nearly 125-year-old Romanesque Revival building is historically significant to the area, but is it eligible for the historic preservation money it’s received from the county?

Madison resident David Steketee is suing Morris County. He reviewed the grant applications, and he says distribution of county funds to 14 churches since 2012 is a violation of taxpayers’ constitutional rights. The suit primarily addresses grants awarded to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

“They specifically said nothing about the desire to preserve the facility for the enjoyment of the public, which is the intent of the grant program — that the facades are to be protected for the benefit of the community,” he says. “But rather, each of them spoke specifically to the need to preserve the facility for their parishioners, for worship of their gods.”

Steketee says this issue is not just about the separation of church and state. It’s also about following the letter and intent of the New Jersey State Constitution.

Article 1, Section 3  reads: “…Nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithe, taxes or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right or has deliberately and voluntarily engaged to perform.”

Steketee says it’s a slippery slope: “It starts to send a message that it’s OK to go ahead and ignore certain aspects of the Constitution that you may not agree with, without really having the support of judicial review of that particular action.”

Representatives from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church could not be reached for comment, and representatives for the Presbyterian Church in Morristown declined to speak on the issue.

Larry Ragonese is spokesperson for the Morris County Freeholder Board.  In a statement to NJTV News he writes: “…It is important to note that only structures, including churches, which are listed on or eligible for the State or National Registers of Historic Places are considered for county historic preservation grants. … Churches and other religious buildings are a vital part of the historic fabric of where we live, interwoven with the history of how our county developed. … In voting to set aside grant money for historic preservation, county taxpayers overwhelmingly told us that they value that history.”

2015 grants to historic churches range from $12,400 for the Ledgewood Baptist Church to complete construction documents for upcoming construction projects, to $300,000 for the First Presbyterian Church of New Vernon’s roof replacement and related work.

Steketee says it’s impossible to differentiate these funds as being secular in nature: “You cannot effectively have a church without a roof, and so the preservation of the facility cannot be really separated from the facility specifically for worship.”

All told, Steketee’s claim states that only approximately $40 of his tax payments have been allocated to this trust fund since 2012.  But Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation Dan Barker says the issue is not a minor one. The organization has been assisting Steketee with his suit.

“There are hundreds of thousands of New Jersey citizens who don’t believe in that religion or any religion at all, but their tax dollars are being used to support someone else’s religious view,” says Barker.

“David Steketee has been testifying before the board meetings about this violation and the county has basically ignored us and has not responded. So we’re forced to take legal action because of basically what appears to be an obstinacy and a disrespect for the rule of law within the state.”

Ragonese doesn’t see it that way.  According to him, the county has legally reviewed the matter. He states: “We are confident that our process — which includes a totally independent review of all historic preservation applications by a volunteer board of county residents with expertise in historic structures — follows state and federal guidelines.”

Whose interpretation of constitutional law will come out on top remains to be seen. A hearing in nearby Somerset County is scheduled for next month.