Public funds for churches – unconstitutional

Public funds for churches – unconstitutional

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To the Editor:

The town of Oak Bluffs, with the advice of the Oak Bluffs Community Preservation Committee (OBPCP), has appropriated, for the third time, public money to repair the stained glass windows of the Trinity Methodist Church. These appropriations are in violation of Article 18 (as amended by Articles 46 & 103) of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution. (Full text:

This amendment prohibits using public funds, raised by taxation, to “aid or maintain” private entities unless under the “exclusive” control of public officials. Additionally the amendment categorically prohibits without exception the use of public funds to aid a church: “no such grant, appropriation or use of public money or property or loan of public credit shall be made or authorized for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society.”

To support the decision to provide public money to repair the stained glass windows, the town has made a number of claims.

First, the town claims that the Trinity Methodist Church is a historic asset. No one would disagree with that assertion. But that assertion, in and of itself, fails to qualify a church as eligible to receive public money.

Second, the town claims that repairing the church’s stained-glass windows provides a direct benefit to the taxpayer. According to them, the public money “solely assist with the restoration of a publicly viewable aspect of” the church. The taxpayers’ direct benefit is the “right to enjoy unfettered access to this architectural feature.” This means that taxpayers can walk by the church and look at it in perpetuity.

However, neither the town, the OBCPC nor Trinity Methodist Church can legally make that guarantee.

Since theTrinity Methodist Church sits on and is entirely surrounded by land owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (a separate private entity), only they can legally guarantee access to the church. And the MVCMA could, at any time, decide to become a gated community and eliminate all public access. (Which is exactly what they did in 1867 when they erected a seven-foot picket fence around the campground to keep out the more “worldly” members of the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company.)

This is not to say that the MVCMA would do such a thing today, but rather to point out that the Trinity Methodist Church has no legal capacity to guarantee the Oak Bluffs taxpayer “unfettered access” in perpetuity. The town and the OBCPC, when they distribute public funds to private entities, should make certain that the benefits to the taxpayers are tangible, legally secured, and under the control of public officers — as required by our state’s constitution.

Third, the town claims that the “funds do not directly aid the church’s religious mission.” This claim is based upon two arguments:

1. No public money is directly paid to the church (the payments go to the contractor). No public funds are used by the church to aid the church’s religious mission.

These are fallacious arguments. All building owners know conclusively that being relieved of the cost of exterior maintenance is a direct monetary benefit to the owner. The saved money can be used for other purposes. In the case of a church, since the church’s purpose is religious, the money saved will be used for religious purposes. Public funds paid to a contractor that relieves a church from the cost of building maintenance is direct financial aid to the church and therefore a direct subsidy of church’s religious mission. If a = b and b = c, then a = c, and, therefore, an unequivocal violation of the 18th Amendment.

When a religious society designates a building as a church, i.e. as a house of worship, the building becomes intrinsically attached and inseparable from the religious mission of the church. The exterior of a church cannot, by a mere turn of phrase, be detached from the religious activities that occur inside the church. The exterior is not a separate entity, such as a church-owned hospital, with a separate and distinct mission, it is the church itself.

The town and the OBCPC wants us to believe that the repair to the stained-glass windows is merely an architectural repair; that the external perception of the windows is paramount and supersedes the interior experience of the windows; that the exterior of a church is a separate entity unto itself; that the exterior is completely disentangled from the religious activities of the church. According to their logic the church exterior becomes a quasi-public asset maintained by the taxpayers while the church interior remains a separate private religious entity — illogic made manifest.

Finally, let us not forget that the Trinity Methodist Church, as a house of worship, is exempt from taxation. They are not required to contribute to the public activities (schools, police, fire, roads, parks, transportation, library, etc.) that the taxpayers of Oak Bluffs have collectively determined to be of a public nature. In America, we exempt churches from taxation because we believe in the free exercise of religion. (No majority religion can tax another religion into oblivion.) But a necessary complement to being relieved of the burden of taxation is to forgo seeking public funds.

There is an idea, deeply embedded in the American way, that no person should be compelled by taxation to maintain a religion of which he/she is not a communicant. It violates one’s religious conscience. This idea is the bedrock of our religious freedom. It is a foundational American concept that has made possible the uniquely American experience of peaceful coexistence between diverse religious sects for more than 200 years. As the 18th, 19th, and 20th century American would have considered maintaining a church with public funds as unseemly, so should we in the 21st century.

Brian Hughes

Oak Bluffs


  1. This guy Hughes is very smart but the liberals who don’t like church anyway wont agree even though they cry the loudest when churches endorse a political party. Being exempt from taxes if you are a church is good but you cannot have it both ways and expect us to pay for your windows.

    1. I have an answer. Move Planned Parenthood to the basement. No liberal would argue against that! Then the liberals could say that the purpose of the stained glass windows would be to guide those in need to the services to which they are entitled. That’s how a lib would think.

  2. People like to take your tax dollars and send it to things against your values every day….but the minute it goes into church windows in a historic church in a tourist area… better watch out because that’s unconstitutional.

    1. Let’s take a look at what xerxesiii is actually saying.

      First he mentions the U.S. Constitution and Federal grants. It should be clear that the issue is only about the Massachusetts Constitution and local/state public monies. No federal monies are involved so the Old North Church is not a valid precedent. As it turns out Massachusetts has a much more stringent restriction on the use of public funds for private or religious institutions.

      Further he cites the legal analysis provided by the Community Preservation Coalition. This analysis, is by one lawyer who is on the board of the Coalition, has no legal standing and has no more legal weight than my letter of xerxesiii response to my letter. In fact, the Massachusetts Supreme court has yet to consider the constitutionality of public monies to churches for historic preservation. But until the Massachusetts Supreme Court says otherwise it is hard to ignore our state’s constitution which says unequivocally that no public funds may be used to aid or maintain a church.

      Further xerxesiii correctly states that deed restrictions must be “conveyed to secure the public’s benefit.” This requirement comes directly from the 18th Amendment which states that public money con only go to private entities if those private entities are under the control of public officers. That was exactly the point of my letter since Trinity Methodist Church has no legal capacity to make that deed conveyance — they lease the land on which the church sits. But even more importantly, if one reads the amendment carefully, the exception that allows public money to private entities if under the control of public officers is not added to the phrase that prohibits public funds to churches!

      Finally, no one would say that the Massachusetts Constitution prohibits the town from buying anything from a church or any other entity for public use. My problem is that we are not buying anything and there is no public use. The church remains a church. We, as taxpayers, are maintaining it.

      1. Churches on the island are very involved in public use and public benefit. Back about 5 years ago a very very large wedding took place and every cab on the island transported them across the island to the reception. Quite the town boon. Then there is the chapel at the end of Circuit where the town of OB voted to break away from Edgartown. Public use I would say. Then there is the United Methodist Church of VH which runs the island food pantry. The Grace Episcopal Church has the local AA group, right? I’m not buying that churches on MV have no public use.

        1. Let’s try to be clear. I never wrote that churches don’t perform publicly useful endeavors. I said that public money raised by taxation to aid or maintain a church is not a public use of money. Giving money to a church to maintain its building is no more a public use of money than giving public money to me to fix my roof even though I give candy to children on Halloween, put up pretty lights at Christmas for everyone to enjoy and regularly contribute to various good causes.

          However, when a church embarks upon non-religious activities (clinics, hospitals, food pantries, counseling, etc.) it is well established that public funds may be appropriated to contract those entities to perform publicly useful endeavors. But only those endeavors, because the non-religious mission of those endeavors is distinguishable from the religious mission of the church and the money will not aid the religious mission of the church.

          The heart of the 18th amendment was passed nearly unanimously at the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1917 and then ratified by the people of Massachusetts with a huge majority vote. At the convention over 200 religious organization from the state sent signed petitions to the convention in support of the amendment banning without exception public money to aid or maintain churches. I don’t believe there was even one petition from a church against the amendment’s ban on aid to churches.

          For those who don’t agree with the 18th amendment there is a clear and precise way to change it: amend the constitution. But that would require a near universal agreement of the people of Massachusetts. When that happens it won’t matter what my values are because that will be the law of the state.

  3. The state Community Preservation Coalition has provided a legal analysis of why CPA grants can go to religious organizations for historic preservation under the US and Massachusetts constitutions. (Just like the Old North Church was able to receive Federal grants because of its historical as opposed to its religious importance). Here’s the link . One thing that is usually required in CPA grants to private or religious recipients is that an historic preservation restriction be conveyed to secure the public’s benefit from the grant. In this sense the town is purchasing something in exchange for the grant. Would anyone say that the anti-aid agreement would prevent the town from buying a piece of land or building from a church for public use, of course not.