Caplan v. Acton: Three Pence is Too Much (Sometimes)

fraywitzerby Kate R. Cook

Viewpoint

The recent Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision Caplan v. Acton, 479 Mass. 69 (2018), addresses whether taxpayer dollars can be used to fund an active church. It’s an important question, and one that attracts strong opinions, especially in a case like Caplan, where the facts center on a popular state grant program that provides funding for historic preservation—something Massachusetts needs a lot of. And for those of us that agree with James Madison, that even three pence in aid is too much when it comes to taxpayer dollars funding religious institutions, anything short of an outright prohibition is cause for concern. So it is easy to see why some might be disappointed that the SJC’s answer is: Maybe. But the Court’s decision is not surprising. Grounded in a textual analysis of the Massachusetts anti-aid amendment and SJC precedent, the decision appropriately leans into the principles animating the amendment, holding public aid to an active church “warrants careful scrutiny.” Id. at 71. Though not unexpected, the decision is significant for two reasons. First, the decision confirms the force of the Massachusetts anti-aid amendment in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017), which held that a church could not be excluded from a government public grant program “solely because it is a church” as that would penalize the free exercise of religion. Second, as already mentioned, the decision reinforces why church-state separation is important to our democracy, delving deep into three major concerns that led to passage of the anti-aid amendment: infringement on taxpayers’ liberty of conscience; government entanglement with religion; and civic disharmony.

In Caplan, taxpayers in the town of Acton challenged the town’s decision to provide two Community Preservation Act grants to an active church under the anti-aid amendment. One grant was intended to fund the restoration of stained glass windows in the main church, including a window depicting Jesus and a kneeling woman and a window featuring a cross and the hymnal phrase, “Rock of Ages Cleft for Me.” The other grant was intended to fund a master plan for historic preservation for three different buildings on the church grounds.

The plaintiff taxpayers argued that the Massachusetts constitution requires a categorical ban on providing any public funds to active churches. The town, on the other hand, argued that the purpose of the Community Preservation Act is constitutional and that, after the Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran, denial of the grant to the church would violate the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The SJC declined to adopt wholly either party’s argument, but instead reached a pragmatic conclusion rooted in the constitution’s text and prior court decisions interpreting the anti-aid amendment.  The SJC held that whether a grant of public funds to active churches is permissible must be considered under the three-factor test first set forth in Commonwealth v. School Comm. of Springfield, 382 Mass. 665, 675 (1981), which considered whether public funding of special education placements of public school students in private schools was permissible. That test is: “whether a motivating purpose of each grant is to aid the church, whether the grant will have the effect of substantially aiding the church, and whether the grant avoids the risks of the political and economic abuses that prompted the passage of the anti-aid amendment.”  Caplan, 479 Mass. at 71.

Applying this test, the Caplan majority found that the stained glass windows grant was most certainly unconstitutional, and remanded for further discovery the question of whether the “purpose” of the master plan grant was to aid the church in violation of the anti-aid amendment.

To be sure, the SJC’s evidentiary focus on the purpose of a Community Preservation Act grant to an active church will be more difficult for municipalities to implement than either a categorical ban on aid or an approach that ignores the anti-aid amendment altogether. But Caplan is neither impossible for towns to implement nor a death knell for historic preservation. First, churches still may apply for Community Preservation Act grants, and towns cannot deny their application “solely because [the applicant] is a church.” Quite the contrary, “[t]he fact that an applicant is an active church is a relevant but by no means disqualifying consideration.” Id. at 85 n.18.  The Court offered examples of permissible grants: grants to a church where historical events of great significance occurred in the church (id. at 94, 101 n.3 (describing the Old North Church)); grants to preserve church property with a primarily secular purpose (id. at 94); and of course, grants to a church preschool to provide a safer surface for its playground (id. at 85).  Second, for historic churches seeking to make repairs that fail to meet the three part test, there are other constitutional ways to obtain funding.  For instance, the National Fund for Sacred Places is a grantmaking nonprofit providing congregations with resources to support restoration of their historic facilities. Finally, the SJC’s suggestion that the town be subject to limited discovery regarding the purpose of the master plan grant—something the plaintiffs had requested and been denied in the lower court—is not overly cumbersome. Municipalities routinely respond to discovery requests, including Rule 30(b)(6) depositions, in a variety of matters, and they are more than capable of doing so in this context as well.

Moreover, expediency is not a reason to abandon the sound reasons the framers sought to prohibit the expenditure of taxpayer dollars for the “purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding [a] church.”  Art. 18, § 2. The Caplan decision wisely places front and center three concerns that led to the anti-aid amendment, which are as real today as they were a century ago when the current Massachusetts anti-aid amendment was adopted and bear repeating. First, the grant of public funds to religious institutions risks infringing on taxpayers’ liberty of conscience.  Indeed, compelling individuals to financially support religion directly harms the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. Whether to follow a particular faith, or none at all, is a choice that every individual has the right to make, free of coercion.

Second, providing public funds directly to an active house of worship runs the risk of government becoming enmeshed with religion. This entanglement creates incentives that may not align with religious beliefs and may encourage religious institutions to curry favor with the government in hopes of receiving government grants.  See David Saperstein, Public Accountability and Faith-Based Organizations: A Problem Best Avoided, 116 HARVARD LAW REV. 1367-68 (2003). “With government money come government rules, regulations, audits, monitoring, interference, and control—all of which inherently threaten religious autonomy.”  Id., at 1365.

Third, providing taxpayer dollars to religious institutions risks damaging civic harmony. “Town meeting members were being asked to vote on a grant to maintain religious aspects of the church of their neighbors and now they are suing each other.” Caplan. at 103 (Kafker, J. concurring). For the State to subsidize religious institutions risks pitting faith against faith by creating competition for funds and conflict among religions as they vie for an ever-larger share of public funds. See Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing Tp., 330 U.S. 1, 53-54 (1947) (Rutledge, J., dissenting).

In conclusion, Caplan’s amplification of the concerns that led to the anti-aid amendment will strengthen both the church and the State. Liberty of conscience, avoiding church state entanglement, and nurturing civic harmony—these concerns remain ever present today. To paraphrase former President Obama, here in Massachusetts, “[o]ur brand of democracy is hard.”  Our freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religious freedom, are well worth the effort.

Kate R. Cook is a partner at Sugarman Rogers and a co-chair of the BBA’s Civil Rights and  Civil Liberties Section.  She filed an amicus brief on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union in support of the plaintiffs in Caplan v.  Acton.  



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