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Pepperdine Religious Liberty Clinic Files Federal Lawsuit on Behalf of Historic New Jersey Churches

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Pepperdine Caruso Law’s Hugh and Hazel Darling Foundation Religious Liberty Clinic, in collaboration with the First Liberty Institute and Jones Day, has filed a federal lawsuit against Morris County, New Jersey on behalf of The Mendham Methodist Church and The Zion Lutheran Church Long Valley in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

The suit challenges Morris County’s policy of excluding houses of worship from the Morris County Historic Preservation Trust Fund, which grants public funds to organizations and entities whose purposes include historic preservation. Past grant recipients have included a local theater, a Masonic lodge, and a restaurant. Meanwhile, two centuries-old churches with a longstanding community presence are excluded from the historic preservation program simply for being faith-based institutions.

“This case is important because we are not asking that churches get anything beyond what any other organizations would receive––we just ask that churches with substantial interests in historical preservation be considered equally for the same generally available funds that non-religious organizations receive,” said Tiereney Souza, a second-year law student at Pepperdine Causo Law who helped write the complaint. 

Morris County previously had a long-standing practice of providing historic preservation grants to houses of worship, but the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that this practice violated the New Jersey Constitution. The ruling precludes religious institutions from benefiting from the grant program, and Morris County implemented the ruling through a policy change that prohibits religious institutions from participating in the program.

But in the time since the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the exclusion of religious institutions from generally available public funding programs simply because of their religious character or religious activities. States and local governments that choose to provide a generally available public benefit — such as historic preservation grants — cannot exclude an otherwise-qualified applicant solely because the applicant happens to be, and operates as, a house of worship. 

“This case seeks to vindicate the rights of these historic churches,” said Jack Walecki, a second-year student at Pepperdine. “The Supreme Court’s recent opinions make it clear that the government cannot exclude religious institutions from public grants, like the ones here, solely because of the institutions’ religious character or activities.”

The complaint details the two churches’ historical presence in Morris County, which were established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Each church now continues to play a role in the Morris County community, including by hosting secular programs and groups. 

“It was an honor to work with the attorneys at Jones Day and First Liberty, and the experience of preparing a complaint, from initial research to writing, has been invaluable as a law student,” said Ellie Ritter, also a second-year student at Pepperdine Caruso Law.

The complaint was prepared by First Liberty Institute attorneys Jeremy Dys and Pepperdine Caruso Law alumnus Ryan Gardner (JD '16), Jones Day attorneys Noel Francisco, Megan Owen, and Ben Aguiñaga, and Pepperdine Religious Liberty Clinic director and professor Eric Rassbach and students Ritter, Souza, and Walecki. 

The clinic at Pepperdine Caruso Law was established in January 2022 with the help of a transformational gift from the Hugh and Hazel Darling Foundation. As part of the school’s Nootbaar Institute for Law, Religion, and Ethics, the Religious Liberty Clinic explores enduring questions relating to how civil governments treat the religious beliefs, expressions, and institutions of their citizens and residents. The clinic offers students the opportunity to work on cutting-edge religious liberty issues in partnership with leading national litigators.