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Court Ruling On Public Funding Puts Fate Of Historic Churches In Doubt

MORRISTOWN, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- The Presbyterian Church in Morristown, N.J., is a recognizable historical landmark in the center of town, which for years has received financial support for its upkeep.

That funding may be about to end, reports CBS2's Hazel Sanchez.

"We'll still be able to maintain our buildings," said long-time church member Walt Fleischer. "We'll still be able to fix our roofs... We just won't necessarily be able to do it to the historic preservation standards."

The change comes after the State Supreme Court ruled unanimously to cut county grants to places of worship, saying it violates the New Jersey constitution.

"Tax dollars cannot be used for the repair or building of religious institutions," explained David Steketee, of Madison, N.J.

From 2012 to 2015, the Morris County Freeholders generously awarded a combined $4.6 million to a dozen churches, including the Presbyterian Church, to fund repairs for historic preservation.

Steketee and the Freedom From Religion Foundation brought this separation of church and state suit to court.

"Religion has a really important role in America society but in order to preserve that, everybody has to have the right and ability to practice as they see fit - but also not contribute to other religious institutions through taxation," Steketee said.

Ken Wilbur, the attorney representing the churches involved, says the grants were only used for secular reasons, such as improving historical aesthetics, not to promote any particular religion.

"The increased expense of doing work on these buildings that conforms with historic requirement, that's a lot more expensive," said Wilbur.

The churches don't have to return the money they already received, but they are considering an appeal.

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