Massachusetts' highest court wrestled Thursday over whether allowing houses of worship to receive public funds for restoration inappropriately blurs the line between church and state.
An attorney for the group of residents who brought the case told the Supreme Judicial Court that the writers of a Massachusetts constitutional amendment clearly meant for active churches to be prohibited from receiving taxpayer dollars in an effort to keep government out of the business of religion.
"If these words mean anything, they mean the government cannot write a check to help an active house of worship," attorney Douglas Mishkin said.
The group of taxpayers is challenging more than $100,000 in community preservation grants that Acton Congregational Church intends to use to restore stained-glass windows that include religious imagery and identify other restoration needs.
The court is expected to rule within months on the town of Acton's decision to award the state and local funds to the historic church.
Mishkin argued that if a church is primarily a historical attraction, it may qualify for the funds under the Community Preservation Act. He pointed to the Old North Church, Boston's oldest surviving church building and one of its most visited historical sites.
But one of the justices questioned how they are supposed to draw the line, noting that Old North Church still holds services.
"Isn't that true in the Old North Church, if there are active congregants, it's still aiding the church?" Justice Elspeth Cypher said.
Massachusetts' churches have used public funds for restoration before, including for stained-glass windows. More than 300 projects involving religious institutions have already been funded through the preservation program, said Nina Pickering-Cook, an attorney for Acton.
She argued that the owner of the building shouldn't matter when it comes to preserving the state's historic buildings.
"The only thing that makes the use of funds here religious is the ownership," she said.
The taxpayers say Acton is not only seeking the funds to restore a historic structure, but to aid the church congregation. In its application for the funds, the church expressed a need to draw in more members amid financial problems, the lawsuit says.
"The church pleaded for it as almost an existential matter: We need it to continue doing what we're doing," Mishkin told the court.
Pickering-Cook said the church's motives for the funds are irrelevant because the town was looking only at the building's historical significance when it approved the grant. After the hearing, she said the town is confident it's "on the right side of the law."
Some of the judges expressed concern over whether allowing houses of worship to receive taxpayer money would set off a competition between different faiths.
If certain faiths' buildings are deemed "validly historic" and receive grants, but others don't, Chief Justice Ralph Gants and others questioned whether it would spark claims of religious discrimination.
"Are we getting an excessive entanglement of church and state here?" Justice Scott Kafker asked.
The initial lawsuit also challenged a grant to the South Acton Congregational Church, but it has since withdrawn its application for the funds. A lower court judge sided with the town of Acton last year.