August 2, 2016: The town of Acton has recently been sued by thirteen local taxpayers in an attempt to stop the town from using their Community Preservation Act funds on projects for local historic church buildings. The taxpayers are working with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C. based organization that focuses on church-state separation activism, and two law firms hired by the organization.
The lawsuit claims that Acton’s Town Meeting approval of CPA grants to preserve stained glass windows and prepare a preservation master plan at Acton Congregational Church, as well as a roof rehabilitation at South Acton Congregational Church, violates the Anti-Aid Amendment of the Massachusetts constitution. AUSCS and the local taxpayers have asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction to stop Acton from issuing CPA funding for these projects. Acton filed their response to the lawsuit at the end of July and now a hearing on the injunction will likely be held in September.
In its response, the town pointed out that it has funded the repairs of several historic structures in the past and that these projects benefit the public at large and have nothing to do with religious operation of the churches. In addition, the town has received permanent historic preservation restrictions on these properties, ensuring that the historic structures remain a part of Acton’s local character. The Anti-Aid Amendment prohibits the use of public funds for the purpose of aiding a private entity, unless those funds are provided to advance a public purpose. CPA advocates have long argued that preserving iconic historic buildings in communities and obtaining a preservation restriction on those structures are activities that benefit the public and therefore do not violate the amendment.
The question of using CPA funds for the historic preservation of religious institutions, and how this applies to the Anti-Aid Amendment, is one that has come up often since CPA’s inception. Much has been written on this topic, including a technical assistance article on the Coalition's website. Although the Acton lawsuit is focused on appropriations to historic religious buildings, it has the potential to impact all CPA projects that follow the public benefit guidelines of the Anti-Aid amendment and grant funds to non-municipal organizations. Because of this, the Community Preservation Coalition felt it was important to support the town in their efforts to defend the lawsuit, and Coalition Executive Director Stuart Saginor submitted an affidavit discussing the importance of private historic buildings to the history and character of Massachusetts and the goals of the Community Preservation Act.
The Coalition will include further information on this case in our upcoming newsletters.