We’re only a few days into freshman Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s career on the high court and he’s already heard arguments surrounding the nation’s latest religious freedom battle — a showdown that could have some sweeping ramifications.
The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, centers around a Missouri government program that provides grants for tire-based resurfacing to help make playgrounds safer for kids.
At the center of the dispute is a church-owned preschool’s claim that it was blocked from receiving a grant for these rubber playground materials due to its affiliation with Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri. Religious liberty law firm the Becket Fund released a statement on Wednesday explaining why it believes the case has some important First Amendment implications.
“The case will determine whether the government can blacklist religious organizations from participating in public safety programs simply because they are religious,” the statement read, in part.
And according to preliminary reports from oral arguments that were held on Wednesday, justices on both sides of the aisle appeared to be troubled by Missouri’s rejection of Trinity Lutheran’s grant application.
But when it comes to Gorsuch — a justice who was nominated by Republican President Donald Trump — he actually didn’t say much during the back-and-forth in the courtroom, Reuters reported.
The Washington Examiner also noted his silence as numerous justices jumped in to ask questions. And he was, in fact, the last justice to ask a question of attorney James Layton, who represents Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources, according to the outlet.
Gorsuch asked why discrimination against the church in a restrictive or selective government program for the public’s benefit was any “better” than discrimination that might unfolded in a more general program.
While he was relatively quiet overall, some of the other justices seemed to indicate their belief that the church should have been permitted to apply for the playground resurfacing as were other nonprofit organizations and public schools. Liberal justice Elena Kagan, for instance, said, “It seems to me … this is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” referring to the state’s refusal.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal firm representing the church, tweeted after oral arguments that attorneys took up the case “because every child’s safety matters.”
— AllianceDefends (@AllianceDefends) April 19, 2017
As Deseret News reported last year, the legal battle touched off back in 2012 when the Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center applied for a grant for the “Playground Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant Program,” which is offered by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
The school was apparently disqualified though, leading to a volleying legal challenge that has now reached the Supreme Court.
“No state can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else,” said David Cortman, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement last year. “That isn’t neutrality; it’s a hostility to religion that violates the First Amendment. That’s the primary issue that the Supreme Court will address.”
But those who support the state’s initial stance believe that religious organization’s cannot take state money due to their sectarian roots. Interestingly, Missouri did an about-face last week, with new Republican Gov. Eric Greitens reversing the policy and now allowing churches to apply, USA Today reported.
While that didn’t overturn the Trinity Lutheran decision, the state likely hoped that it would at least pause the Supreme Court battle. After Wednesday’s oral arguments, though, it doesn’t seem the justices are prepared to shelve the dispute.
The justices are expected to rule on the potentially precedent-setting matter at the end of June. You can read about the history surrounding the battle here.
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