February 14th, 2017: The highest court in the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), has agreed to hear the lawsuit regarding the use of CPA funds to preserve historic religious buildings in Acton.
The plaintiffs in this case are a group of Acton taxpayers represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Last summer, they filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the town from using CPA funds for preservation projects on two historic religious buildings. After the Middlesex County Superior Court refused to grant an injunction last September, the plaintiffs appealed and subsequently asked for the case to be sent directly to the SJC instead of the appeals court. This week, the request for direct review was allowed, and the case is on the September list for argument at the SJC.
Lawsuits regarding CPA are exceedingly rare. The only time the SJC has reviewed a case regarding CPA was the Newton recreational lawsuit back in 2008. In that decision, the court ruled that the city of Newton could not use CPA funds to rehabilitate two existing parks because they were not acquired or created with CPA funds. The legislature responded in 2012 by amending the law to allow CPA communities to rehabilitate recreational assets, no matter how they were originally created or acquired.
This case has the potential to impact all CPA projects that follow the public benefit guidelines of the Anti-Aid amendment to grant funds to non-municipal organizations. The plaintiffs argue that the projects violated the Massachusetts Anti-Aid Amendment, a centuries-old amendment to our state's constitution that puts restrictions on public funding for private institutions. However, in the Superior Court decision denying the request for an injunction, Justice Leila Kern ruled that the purpose of the CPA grants was not to aid the Churches, but specifically for "the acquisition, preservation, rehabilitation and restoration of historic resources" and that the CPA funds were issued without regard to the applicant's makeup or purpose.