In a significant matter for Drinker Biddle’s Public Interest practice, on January 9 the Superior Court of New Jersey dismissed a suit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national advocacy group promoting nontheism, challenging Morris County, N.J.’s award of preservation grants to a dozen historic churches in the county.
The challenged grants, which were limited in scope to external work on structures already qualified for inclusion on the National and/or State Registers of Historic Places, spanned a number of years and totaled several million dollars. Through Walt Fleischer, Drinker Biddle was asked to represent the churches, and agreed to undertake the engagement pro bono. Kenneth Wilbur handled the briefing and argument with the assistance of associate Justin Ginter.
Somerset County Superior Court Chancery Division Judge Margaret Goodzeit found the freeholders weren't promoting religion by providing grants to churches through the Historic Preservation Trust Fund, as the grants advanced a public purpose and the terms under which they were awarded to churches and secular buildings was neutral and didn't favor or endorse religious institutions.
The decision is significant for its implications for historic preservation efforts and for its articulation of a strong, modern, neutralist interpretation of the church-State provisions of the New Jersey State Constitution.