Should Acton rescind its recent approval of CPA funds for church projects?
President, Massachusetts Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State
The Anti-Aid Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution says that no use of public money shall be made “for the purpose of…aiding any church.” The town of Acton’s three grants of Community Preservation Act funds last April to Acton Congregational Church and South Acton Congregational Church plainly violate this prohibition.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State represents 13 Acton taxpayers who have sued to enforce their rights under the Constitution. Although they represent various political perspectives, these townspeople share one conviction: they should not be compelled to contribute to a church to which they do not belong.
In preparing this lawsuit, we’ve heard several themes in response.
These churches are good citizens of the community. Undoubtedly true. But the separation of church and state does not make an exception for churches that are “good citizens” or are popular in the community. Nor should it. Such an exception would be treacherous. Government should not make judgments about the relative popularity of different religious groups.
Those who oppose these grants are in the minority. That may (or may not) be true, but is irrelevant. Constitutional provisions such as the Anti-Aid Amendment are designed to protect those in the minority. Values protected by the Constitution may be unpopular at any given time. That unpopularity is frequently what necessitates lawsuits such as this one.
Historic preservation is good for the community. That also may be true. Every Acton taxpayer who wishes to support these churches because of their historic value to the community is free to contribute. But these are active houses of worship whose mission is to serve their members. The historic status of their buildings, while perhaps interesting and important, is incidental.
Separation of church and state also protects religious groups from governmental interference. No church should have to answer questions from the public about how it raises or spends its money. Any house of worship that accepts Community Preservation Act funds invites that scrutiny.
Complying with the Anti-Aid Amendment by stopping these three challenged grants would protect the rights of all Acton taxpayers while preserving the independence of these churches and other religious groups. That’s why Americans United is supporting this lawsuit and why we are hopeful the town will choose to rescind its funding for these projects.
James W. Igoe
President, Preservation Massachusetts, statewide non profit historic preservation advocacy and education organization
Massachusetts is one of the most historic states in our nation. Our collective sense of community, who we are, where we have been, and where we are going is defined by the places and spaces in which we live. These places are made up of history that is tangible in historic buildings and landscapes. Through them we get our sense of place, our roots, and touchstones to our history as we grow and change as people and communities.
The Community Preservation Act is a tool that 161 communities have passed in order to help preserve the historic structures that make them their own unique places, and part of our larger statewide history.
That includes venerable church buildings such as those Acton voted to help preserve. CPA funding for historic religious properties is not about religion, it is about history.
Our history and historic town centers often prominently featured houses of worship. These buildings became interwoven into the cultural fabrics of their towns, regardless of use or religious affiliation. In times where funding for preservation work of any kind is scarce and extremely valuable, CPA provides communities with the ability to ensure the places that matter to its citizens are preserved and protected in perpetuity. These buildings are ones that both the town and state have deemed significant in terms of history, archaeology, architecture, or culture.
Both the state and federal governments have funded the preservation of historic religious properties, including Boston’s Old North Church, whose structure was repaired through a federal Save America’s Treasures grant. There is hardly a more fitting example of how historic churches are integral to collective history and culture and why it is necessary to preserve and repair them for more than simply being a house of worship. Especially when projects are carefully reviewed, vetted, and overwhelmingly approved locally at Town Meeting, as was the case in Acton.
Regardless of the litigation and its implications, CPA is unquestionably beneficial to all historic structures in our Commonwealth and to their communities. With a view to all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns, our historic structures are cultural assets of which all people should be rightfully proud.
Last week’s argument: Should voters pass the ballot question in November to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts?
Yes: 66 percent (21 votes)
No: 34 percent (11 votes)
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org