In recent years, Massachusetts has not been a hotbed of Separation of Church and State or Free Exercise controversy. We were the first to legalize same sex marriage and the legislature just enacted strong protections for the LGBT community. Our population is religiously diverse, and not given to zealotry. There are a lot of non-theists here. But, every so often, we get our share of government officials and religious entities losing sight of how that whole First Amendment thing is supposed to work.
History is very big here. Pilgrims, Puritans, farmers, witches, revolutionaries, Founders, Transcendentalists, shipping magnates, abolitionists, industrialists, labor unionists, civil libertarians, education reformers, and countless other movements were born or took root and flourished here. In a country that is young by international standards, old buildings (by US standards) are rare. We have quite a few of them in Massachusetts, and we make sure they are well preserved if possible. To this end, in 2000 the Community Preservation Act (CPA)was adopted which provides for local establishment of funds for a variety of preservation and protection projects. Individual towns raise money through a local tax, and the state matches the funds.
In many towns across the state, some of the most historic structures are churches. We’ve all seen the postcard images of white churches on town greens. This is a very New England landscape, one worth seeing in person if you ever have the opportunity. So it shouldn’t come as a total surprise that certain towns in Massachusetts have started allocating tax dollars raised under the CPA to fund repairs and upgrades to churches in an effort to ensure that all of that history, those picture perfect views and the tourist dollars they bring in are preserved. The problem is that although the buildings are old, most of the churches still house active congregations. The CPA kitty has become a building maintenance fund for houses of worship. For old houses of worship. For old, Christian houses of worship. For old, certain types of Christian houses of worship. You can see the difficulty. Everyone’s taxes are paying to keep a few churches in decent repair. If you are a member of a Christian congregation that uses a newer, less picturesque structure, or a Jewish community that only built its temple in the last few decades, or a Muslim or Hindu or Sikh congregation, you have to raise your own money to repair a roof or a window. You have your own building fund. You hold rummage sales and sell baked goods. The town and state are not going to give you money to keep your church, mosque or temple in good condition. And if you are non-religious, you are effectively being required to support active religious groups. Government favoritism towards a particular religious sect, forced support of religion, and enforcing different rules for different religious communities are precisely the actions the Establishment Clause (separation) was meant to prohibit.
On the flip side, we also have a case of government overreach which interferes with religious practice. Rather than asking for tax money for maintenance, one of those historic churches on a pretty town green wants to put solar panels on its roof as part of its goal to be a more environmentally responsible community. The congregation is adopting numerous measures to support sustainability. This is a stated part of its religious mission. Despite a the church submitting a design that would not alter its historic façade, its application was denied by the town. Prohibiting the church from acting in accordance with one of its primary tenets is precisely the action the Free Exercise Clause was meant to prohibit.
As with all of our freedoms, ensuring that the religious freedoms of the First Amendment are consistently protected requires vigilance and tenacity. You can’t be complacent. Even in the bluest of states, well-meaning individuals can lose sight of what’s at stake when the line between government and religion is crossed. Lawsuits have been filed in both instances. We’ll see how these cases turn out.