Morris County risks taxpayer dollars by appealing unanimous case

A conservative religious legal fund is leading a New Jersey county down the garden path — and the misdirection could cost taxpayers quite a bundle.

On April 18, the Freedom From Religion Foundation won a resounding victory over Morris County when the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously upheld the state Constitution’s ban against taxpayer funds being used for “building or repairing any church or churches.” On Monday evening, the Morris County Board of Freeholders voted to retain the Becket Fund, a religious lobbying firm founded by conservative Roman Catholics, to draft an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of the county’s 7-0 defeat in front of the state’s top court.

Becket Fund, like other similar groups, offered to represent the government “at no charge to the county.” It reportedly assured officials that “there will be no cost to county taxpayers.” As FFRF has warned governments in the past, including in an op-ed for Religion News Service, this is a familiar bait-and-switch tactic that places all the risk on taxpayers while tricking them into thinking there is nothing to lose. 

Contrary to Becket’s contention, an appeal could be a very costly endeavor for Morris County taxpayers. The Becket Fund might not charge the county, but the county will still be responsible for FFRF’s legal fees and costs, unless in the unlikely eventuality that the United States Supreme Court decides to hear the case AND to overturn the state supreme court’s unanimous decision. FFRF’s legal fees and costs are already nearly $250,000, a number that will climb sharply with any attempt to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Several local governments have been pushed into dire financial straits because of these "pro bono" offers from Christian-right law firms. Governments have had to take out loans, turn to crowdfunding and beg for money from national organizations such as Focus on the Family. The fundraising appeals have always fallen short, keeping the burden on the taxpayer.

That’s why Morris County taxpayers should be furious that their county unconstitutionally spent their hard-earned dollars to repair churches and have now decided to throw even more taxpayer funds into the same losing lawsuit. The county has far better ways to spend tax revenue — and should not let a slick law firm convince it otherwise.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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