Florham Park partner Ken Wilbur and Princeton partner Ross Lewin appeared before the New Jersey Supreme Court on October 23 to argue separate matters that both involve religious freedom issues. Both cases were written up in the New Jersey Law Journal and other publications.
In the morning, Ken argued on behalf of 12 Morris County churches whose receipt of historic preservation grants had been challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national advocacy group promoting nontheism. This is a significant matter for the firm’s Pro Bono practice.
In January 2017, the Superior Court of New Jersey dismissed the suit, holding that 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 case is important for its articulation of a strong, modern, neutralist interpretation of the church-State provisions of the New Jersey State Constitution.
In the afternoon, Ross argued on behalf of Princeton Theological Seminary, whose receipt of two grants totaling $350,000 from the New Jersey Educational Facilities Authority had been challenged by the ACLU of New Jersey, among others. The grants to the Seminary were for technology upgrades that supported the Seminary’s efforts to make its world class library collection available over the internet and for hardware to be installed in a corporate-style computer training room.
The Supreme Court took the case after the Appellate Division held that the grants to the Seminary violated the State Constitution. The case presents the question of whether the State is able to make grants to a sectarian institution for projects that are not to be used in religious worship or religious instruction.