Though a recent state Supreme Judicial Court decision temporarily prevents Acton from using public funds to help restore a landmark Protestant church, it did reaffirm a principle that should be obvious to anyone living in a region so steeped in history.

Any institution that played a formative role in the early development of a particular community deserves consideration, be it religious or secular.

That's what the SJC concluded when it also ruled there's no blanket state ban on public funding for religious organizations.

The decision came as a result of Acton's attempt to use Community Preservation Act money in part to fund the restoration of stained glass windows at Acton Congregational Church.

However, the commonwealth's Constitution also includes an anti-aid amendment, a section of which prohibits the grant, appropriation or use of public money or property ... for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination or society.

That language was the basis of a suit to block the use of CPA funds to restore the church windows.

Town officials obviously considered the Acton Congregational Church both a religious and historical site. The church dates back to 1832, when the Acton Evangelical Society separated from the First Parish of Acton, which was founded in 1735.


In making its decision, the state's high court indicated that any judge asked to rule on a particular case must determine if such funds materially benefit that church, or whether allocating public money amounts to an abuse of the separation of church and state.

Since the Acton church still operates as a house of worship, the SJC said that using public funds in this situation warrants careful scrutiny. It referred the case back to Superior Court for further review.

While the court decision doesn't rule out the Acton church's funding, the practical result of this litigation does, since the town has spent considerably more on legal fees than the proposed restoration amount.

According to the State House News Service, attorney Eric Rothschild, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the preliminary injunction establishes that residents "aren't forced to support the religions they aren't affiliated with."

We wholeheartedly disagree. In Massachusetts, there's ample evidence of the historical significance of religious institutions, as Justice Elspeth Cypher wrote in her dissenting opinion: "Historic churches and meeting houses are, like secular historic buildings, an indispensable part of our historic landscape, and warrant the same degree of preservation."

She no doubt had in mind Boston's Old North Church, where on April 18, 1775, two lanterns hung from its steeple guided the Colonial militia in the Revolutionary War's first battles at Lexington and Concord.

Or the African Meeting House on Boston's Beacon Hill. Built in 1806, it's now a museum and the nation's oldest existing black church building.

History doesn't distinguish between houses of God or houses of patriots, and neither should we.