Superior Court Associate Justice Richard T. Moses rejected a request from 10 Oak Bluffs taxpayers who had asked for a preliminary injunction to block the town from spending Community Preservation Act funds to restore the stained glass windows in the Trinity Methodist Church.
Arguments for the injunction were heard on November 6 in New Bedford. A group headed by Brian Hughes of Oak Bluffs argued that the town violated the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights by using taxpayer money to promote religion. Other plaintiffs in the suit were Lisa Rohn, Erik Albert, John Cummings, Anne Cummings, Barbara Peckham, Douglas Peckham, Candace Mead, Charles Mead, and Stephen Gallas. According to the plaintiffs’ motion, spending town money on church repairs “will cause immediate and irreparable harm.”
Justice Moses did not agree. “The Court finds that there has been an insufficient showing of a likelihood of success on the merits and that granting the injunction wouldn’t be in the public interest,” the judge wrote in his opinion denying the motion for injunctive relief.
“They [Mr. Hughes et al] filed a ten taxpayer suit to enjoin the expenditure of funds which they think violates the Constitution,” said Oak Bluffs town counsel Ron Rappaport. “The court denied the injunction, which makes the town free to spend it.”
Mr. Rappaport said it takes a minimum of 10 taxpayers to challenge a town expenditure.
Oak Bluffs voters approved the $32,000 outlay at the April 2013 town meeting. The funds will come from the Community Preservation Act, which was signed into law in 2000. Community Preservation Act funding comes from a surcharge of up to three percent on property taxes, plus a variable state match, to raise money for open space, historic preservation, affordable housing, and outdoor recreation.
Community Preservation Act funds have previously been used by other Island towns for church restoration. Edgartown approved funding to repair stained glass windows at Saint Andrew’s Church and to restore the bell at the Old Whaling Church. Tisbury allocated Community Preservation Act funds to restore the stained glass windows at the First Baptist Church. West Tisbury voters approved spending $30,000 for work on the First Congregational Church. Oak Bluffs has also previously spent $24,000 in community preservation funds to repair windows at the Tabernacle.
The town’s written opposition to the motion noted that this is common practice statewide. “The Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) has funded at least 12 rehabilitation and restoration projects of historic churches since 2002.” The town also argued that the expenditure was permissible because, “it will be utilized to rehabilitate a state registered historic asset to which the public has access to view and therefore advances a public purpose; it will not aid, in any way, the church’s religious mission.”
“We’re saying it’s not supporting a church,” said Mr. Rappaport. “It’s a historic building, in the Campgrounds, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. And it’s just the exterior. There’s a distinction between preservation of a historic building and promoting a religion. Whatever goes on inside with religious services, the town has nothing to do with that.”
Mr. Rappaport says this conflict arises often in Massachusetts, where history and religion are inexorably intertwined, and where many churches with historic significance still stand. “The U.S. Park Service provides funds to restore the exterior of Old North Church, which is a house of worship,” he said. “That’s on the National Register of Historic Places, so there’s a distinction between preservation of an historic building and promoting religion.”
At a 2009 town meeting, voters approved spending community preservation money on the same stained glass windows, despite a 4-1 vote recommending against the outlay from the finance committee, which cited similar concerns to those expressed by Mr. Hughes and his co-plaintiffs.
Mr. Rappaport has not heard if the plaintiffs’ plan to pursue the case further.
Neither Mr. Hughes nor fellow plaintiff Erik Albert could be reached for comment.