June 30, 2004
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The American Civil Liberties of New Jersey and the American Jewish Congress today successfully dismissed a lawsuit challenging the grant of $250,000 in State taxpayer funds to a private Catholic school, after the State agreed not to release the disputed funds. The ACLU-NJ had claimed that providing taxpayers’ funds for the expansion of a religious school violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and the “No Preference” Clause of the New Jersey Constitution.

“Providing financial support to a private religious school through taxpayers’ funds is not only unconstitutional but, with so many of our public schools in desperate conditions, is wholly unjustifiable,” stated Deborah Jacobs, ACLU-NJ Executive Director. “We are pleased that the State has agreed not to release the funds and can now put that money to a more appropriate use.”

While the United States Supreme Court has upheld programs in which funds or benefits are made generally available to all schools or students and therefore end up in part going to parochial schools, here the New Jersey legislature’s grant of direct funds solely to the Catholic school (to the exclusion of other non-secular and secular schools) lacked the essential element of “neutrality.”

“Conferring financial support to followers of one religion to the exclusion of others is the exact type of action against which our state and federal constitutions were meant to protect,” stated Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress, who served as cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “Funds are permitted to flow to religious schools from government programs that are both neutral and generally available to all schools or all students. The grant to Seton Hall, however, was neither neutral towards religion nor generally available.”

The funds in dispute were to go to Seton Hall Preparatory Academy, a private Catholic school located in West Orange, New Jersey. The ACLU-NJ had originally also challenged a similar grant to St. Peter’s Prep for “field remediation.” The ACLU-NJ dismissed the portion of the suit that challenged the grant to St. Peter’s Prep in December 2003, after it was determined that the funding would be used solely for environmental clean-up, which would protect the surrounding community from chemicals that could seep into the surrounding land and that had been present on the site before the school bought the land.

In addition to itself, the ACLU represented Madeline Houston, who has two children currently in the Montclair, New Jersey, public school system. Her daughter, a junior, plays on the soccer and softball teams. Her son attends a Montclair middle school that rents space from a local church because it does not possess its own facilities. For use of a gym or library, the students at the middle school must walk to the YMCA or to the town’s public library.

The case is captioned ACLU-NJ, et al. v. Librera, et al. and was filed in the New Jersey Superior Court, Mercer County, Law Division.