The Congregational Church in Acton is at the center of a court fight over whether public money can be used to restore historic churches.

Credit: Stephanie Leydon/WGBH News

Is Public Money Preserving Church History Or Funding Religion?

September 15, 2017

Drive down Acton’s main street, and you’re surrounded by history. On one side, the Town Green features a towering monument honoring Acton’s Revolutionary War soldiers. Across the street, the town hall has been repainted beige with green and brown trim, its original colors.   Acton’s Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved a plan to spend more than $100,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding to restore another historic building: the Congregational Church.   

“The church building represents the entire history of Acton. It’s intertwined with the growth of the town from its very first days,” said Peter Berry, an Acton selectman.

He points out that when Acton got its charter, it also got the church — a place where the congregation gathered not only to worship, but also to resolve civic matters.

“That’s really where the New England town meetings came from — people gathering in churches to discuss government affairs," Berry said. 

Located on one side of the Town Green, The Congregational Church is a sprawling building with peeling white paint. The CPA money — a combination of local real estate taxes and a registry of deeds surtax — would fund a plan to restore the building and its stained glass windows.   One of the windows is a depiction of Jesus.

That’s really where the New England town meetings came from — people gathering in churches to discuss government affairs.

Peter Berry, Acton Board of Selectmen

“When people came here in the beginning, many came here for religious freedom. They were trying to escape from governments and churches which forced them to pay taxes to churches they didn’t belong to,” said Ron Madnick.

Madnick, who lives in Worcester, once led the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter. He’s now with a national group called Americans United For Separation of Church and State. When he heard from a couple of Acton taxpayers upset about funding the Congregational Church renovation, he quickly found more. Americans United filed a lawsuit on their behalf. Their quest to prevent CPA money from being used for church renovations is now before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

“We’re questioning the use of that money for religious organizations, since there’s an amendment that says it can’t be used for that purpose," said Madnick.

 

The court’s decision could have far-reaching implications. Over the last 15 years, CPA money has been used to fund the renovations of about 300 churches across Massachusetts, including the Swedenborg Chapel in Harvard Square.

We’re questioning the use of that money for religious organizations, since there’s an amendment that says it can’t be used for that purpose.

Ron Madnick, Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Built from stone and set back on a patch of green grass, the chapel stands in sharp contrast to the modern buildings that surround it. A $50,000 CPA grant paid for repairs Cole says the congregation could not afford.

The Swedenborg Chapel in Harvard Square is among nearly 300 churches to receive CPA funding in Massachusetts.
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Photo Credit: Stephanie Leydon/WGBH News

“It was such a boost to the community to have that money and keep things up. If we’re going to have this beautiful building, we want it to be in good repair,” said Rev. Sage Cole, pastor of the Swedenborg Chapel.

Cole presides over a congregation of just 15 people. It’s an extreme example of a problem facing many religious institutions: declining attendance. But churches, including this one, are also used for public meetings and concerts. Cole says they should continue to qualify for CPA money.

“We are part of the community, too. So it would certainly be strange to limit a whole portion of the population from receiving that kind of support, and churches in particular kind of have a historical significance,” said Cole.

But can public money preserve a church’s history without supporting its religion? It’s a question now in the Commonwealth’s highest court.  

Editor's note:  An earlier version of this story indicated that Town Meeting is held in Acton's Town Hall.  It's held at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School.  


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