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Dec 6, 12:21 AM EST

Judge to hear arguments in spat over religious headstone law


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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- A federal judge in New Jersey is scheduled to hear arguments on Wednesday in a case pitting the state against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark over a law that makes it illegal for private religious cemeteries to sell monuments and headstones.

The dispute has been percolating for several years.

The Newark archdiocese in 2013 expanded an "inscription-rights program" to help ensure that it had funds to care for its cemeteries. Under the program, the archdiocese provided the headstone and retained ownership of the monument.

The Monument Builders Association filed suit, claiming the church's tax-exempt status and relationship with parishioners gave it an unfair advantage. The group lost after an appeals court upheld a judge's ruling in favor of the archdiocese.

But New Jersey's Legislature ultimately outlawed the practice, and the archdiocese sued in 2015.

On Wednesday, both sides will seek to have the judge throw out the case before it goes to trial.

In a recent brief, attorneys for the state noted that New Jersey has prohibited secular cemeteries from selling the monuments for more than 100 years, and argued religious cemeteries should be treated similarly.

"Cemeteries have unique advantages over other market actors by virtue of their tax exemptions; their control over an irreplaceable, rare, tax-exempt resource - cemetery land - which is necessary for burying the dead; and their psychological advantages over consumers (such as having a consumer's family and friends already interred in the cemetery)," attorneys wrote.

The archdiocese argued in a recent filing that the state allows religious cemeteries to sell plots and community mausoleums and should allow them to sell headstones and monuments as well.

It accused the state of economic protectionism and said the state was acting as if "religious cemeteries will act like nineteenth-century robber barons" unless a ban remains in place, a concern it called "sheer fantasy."

The archdiocese serves approximately 1.3 million Roman Catholics in Essex, Hudson, Union and Bergen counties.

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