A majority on the Supreme Court appeared to offer support Wednesday for a church excluded from a publicly funded aid program, during the hearing for what was considered Justice Neil Gorsuch’s first high-profile case.
At issue is a double dose of contentious issues: religious freedom and taxpayer funding. It is one of the most closely watched cases of the term, and could portend a series of upcoming church-state disputes facing the justices.
The justices are considering whether Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., should be eligible for state funds. The church sued after being denied funding to improve the surface of a playground used by its preschool, by replacing gravel with softer, recycled synthetic rubber.
The state program gives grants to nonprofits seeking a safer recreational environment for children. But Missouri’s law — similar to those in roughly three-dozen other states – prohibits direct government aid to educational institutions that have a religious affiliation.
Republican Gov. Eric Greitens’s unexpected decision last week to change the policy and allow religious institutions to participate in the program raised questions about whether the constitutional fight is now moot — but no one on the nine-member bench appeared ready to punt the case away.
Instead, an intense hour of oral arguments focused on the merits.
“I’m not sure it’s a ‘free exercise’ [of religion] question,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “No one is asking the church to change its beliefs. The state is just saying it doesn’t want to be involved in giving [public] money to the church.”
But other members of the court questioned the church’s exclusion.
“You’re denying one set of actors from competing [for the grant money] because of religion,” Justice Elena Kagan said. She called it a “clear burden on a constitutional right.”
The Constitution’s First Amendment speaks on religion in the public sphere with two important provisions. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from unduly preferring or promoting religion over non-religion, and vice versa. And the Free Exercise Clause protects Americans’ rights to practice their faith, absent a “compelling” government interest.
SOURCE: Bill Mears