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Historic preservation and the place of religion in the civic square

Historic preservation and the place of religion in the civic square

Should churches should be eligible for county historic preservation grants? A lively debate before the Morris County council, known as freeholders, focused on the place of religion in civic life.

The Morris Daily Record:

“I don’t want to be funding anyone else’s church,” Long Valley resident Wayne Laraway angrily told the freeholders before they voted about 10 p.m. Wednesday to support a resolution that affirmed the county’s commitment to preservation and acquisition of historic properties and the eligibility of religious institutions for grants.

Some 75 people, including local clergy, municipal officials, historians and believers in a firm separation of church and state, crowded the freeholder meeting room for the debate. Though the issue of the freeholders allowing houses of worship to apply for county historic preservation grants had been brewing for nearly a year, it publicly came to a head on Jan. 14, when Freeholder William “Hank” Lyon proposed a resolution to end the eligibility of churches for the grants. He said the the practice appeared to violate the state Constitution.

On Monday, Lyon withdrew his opposition to the grant giving, saying its constitutionality is ambiguous and a subject better left to judges or for a constitutional amendment considered by voters.

But people for and against the preservation grants to churches came to Wednesday’s meeting.

Posted by Andrew Gerns


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Geoff McLarney

Interesting to read about this from an American perspective. Here in Québec, as a result of the rapid secularization of the mid-to-late 20th C., we have hundreds of underpopulated churches which, despite our laïcité, are considered part of our heritage and the government has a public interest in their maintenance. This can lead to headaches when renovations or repairs are needed and in addition to the various contractors, parishes need to liaise with a the government office of religious patrimony, but on the bright side there’s public money available to offset the cost of historically authentic materials etc. (which often makes projects much more expensive than they would otherwise need to be).

I’m generally of the opinion that churches should have the same standing as other non-profits. They shouldn’t get special perks because they are churches, but if the state is in the business of giving tax breaks or historical status to non-profits, it ought not treat religious ones differently because they are religious. Of course, I also think that churches should be providing services to the wider community that justify their non-profit status. If a church is merely a worshipping (or mortuary!) society, then something is wrong.

Adelaide Kent

Our church is a city landmark. We pay for our own repairs and preservation. I believe our diocese provides aid to struggling churches that cannot afford needed repairs.

I think that active churches should fund their own costs. However when a church building has been given over to some other use, I see no problem with the use of government funding to maintain the building, despite its prior use as a place of worship.

Susan Forsburg

This has been a persistent problem in California, where a number of the historic 18th c Spanish missions are in decline.

Lionel Deimel

I am a strong believer in separation of church and state. That said, it is reasonable to provide public funds to preserve buildings of architectural or historical significance, even churches. There can be a fine line between funds to preserve a building and funds that subsidize the users of that building. A blanket prohibition against using preservation funds for a church building is probably a wrongheaded policy, but individual grant proposals should be considered very carefully.

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