Amherst Town Meeting voted last night to approve spending of about $862,000 in Community Preservation Act funds, including $245,000 to repair the historic steeple on a building that now houses the Jewish Community of Amherst.
The building at 742 Main St. that was once the Second Congregational Church dates to 1839. The Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA) will be required to file a historic preservation deed restriction, Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said.
There was lengthy debate at last night’s meeting about use of public funds for a religious institution, with some claiming that such an expenditure trespasses on the Constitutional separation of church and state.
“I have a problem with this, like I do with a lot of religious buildings,” said Abigail Jensen of Precinct 4. “This is an enormous amount of money right here,” she added.
“The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) does see this to be a violation, or an unnecessary entanglement, of church and state,” said Leo Maley of Precinct 5.
The steeple was struck by lightning in 2014, and has been leaning since, according to Laura Lovett, the CPA’s Historical Commission representative. When the JCA brought in a specialist to address the tilt, it was found that the wood was soft and damaged.
CPA funds can only be allocated for historic preservation, open space, and community housing projects. Although legal opposition has arisen in some communities over use of such funds to restore churches, courts have generally found in favor of restoring New England’s houses of worship, which made up a significant share of the region’s grand early buildings.
Steeples are not typically a feature of synagogues. Lovett said the JCA has maintained and is seeking to preserve the steeple, “out of the sense of a need for history.”
Diana Stein, a CPA Committee member, said that without CPA funds, the steeple would probably need to be removed. “The shape of the building would be very different,” she said.
Lovett and Stein said the area surrounding the JCA was actually the original Amherst town common.
Selectman Jim Wald said that 742 Main St. is an anchor of the East Village Historic District, and it is important to preserve the “publicly available” features of historic buildings.
In 2013, Amherst Town Meeting approved spending of $106,000 to restore a stained glass window made by artist Louis Comfort Tiffany which hangs in the Unitarian Universalist Society building at 121 North Pleasant St. Last spring, Town Meeting also approved a $200,000 grant to the First Congregational Church at 165 Main St., for a new fire suppression and sprinkler system, although it was unclear if the church would accept the resulting deed restriction. In December, the church notified the town it would not be accepting the grant, which fell short of the $360,000 it initially requested.
Kenton Tharp of Precinct 1 spoke in favor of the JCA steeple restoration, and praised Town Meeting for having preserved the Tiffany window. “That is something that everybody who comes through our town can enjoy,” he said.
In Massachusetts, CPA funds are raised through a surcharge of up to 3% on the local property tax levy, and Amherst’s rate is now at 3%. The state provides a supporting grant to participating communities. In 2016, the state provided each of those with about 20% more funds. Currently, 172 Massachusetts municipalities have adopted the CPA. (Click on the words in bold for a statewide map showing those towns.)
Last night, $50,000 was approved by Town Meeting to repair 40 to 60 severely damaged headstones in the 1860 section of the West Cemetery, and $25,000 for a report on the Jones Library, documenting any changes since 1928. A total of $250,000 was earmarked for affordable housing budget reserve, and $100,0000 for a new pump and filter for the Mill River pool. Another $360,000 in spending for a North Common improvement project was separated from the other CPA items at the request of Vincent O’Connor of Precinct 1, and will be discussed when Town Meeting resumes on Monday.
The phrase “separation of church and state” is traced to founding father Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, and refers to the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. In a letter, Jefferson wrote of “building a wall of separation between Church and State. “