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Public grants can be used for church renovations, judge rules

Town Meeting approved Community Preservation Funds for the Acton Congregational Church in April.
Town Meeting approved Community Preservation Funds for the Acton Congregational Church in April.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

A Middlesex County Superior Court justice has ruled that the town of Acton can proceed with plans to use community preservation grants to renovate two churches.

A national group that advocates for the separation of church and state filed a lawsuit on behalf of 13 Acton residents who say the town is improperly using taxpayer funds for religious purposes.

At its April 4 Town Meeting, Acton approved $49,500 for Acton Congregational Church’s master plan for its three properties; $51,237 for that church’s stained-glass-window project; and $15,000 for South Acton Congregational Church’s roof. The properties date back to the 1800s and are located in historic districts.

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The Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State was seeking an injunction to stop those funds from being distributed. The suit claimed that the projects violated an amendment to the state’s Constitution that puts restrictions on public funding for private institutions.

However, Justice Leila Kern rejected the request for an injunction, saying in her decision that “there is no likelihood that the Plaintiffs will succeed on the merits of their claim that grants to the Churches under the CPA would violate the Anti-Aid Amendment.’’

She said that the court finds that the “purpose of the grants to the churches under the CPA is to preserve historic resources, and not to aid the Churches.’’

Kern heard oral arguments on Sept. 14 and issued a ruling two days later.

Eric Rothschild, senior litigation counsel with Americans United, said they will appeal the decision.

“Americans United and our clients feel very strongly that Acton’s grants to the churches violates the constitutional prohibition against using public money for maintaining or aiding any churches,’’ he said in an e-mail.

Peter Berry, the chairman of the Acton Board of Selectmen, said the town had no comment on the decision.

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Berry, who is the selectmen’s representative on the town’s Community Preservation Committee, previously said the funds were granted based on the historic nature of the buildings.

The Community Preservation Act is state legislation that allows cities and towns to create a local community preservation fund for open space protection, historic preservation, affordable housing and outdoor recreation. Funds are raised locally through a property tax surcharge of up to 3 percent.


Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.