Supreme court justices depict is supportive of church, in Gorsuch’s 1st high-profile suit

One week ago

A majority on the Supreme Court appeared to offer support Wednesday for a church be exempted from a publicly funded aid program, during the hearing for what was considered Justice Neil Gorsuchs first high-profile case.

At issue is a double dosage 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 disagreements facing the justices.

The justices are considering whether Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo ., should be eligible for state monies. 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 awards to nonprofits seeking a safer recreational environment for children. But Missouri’s law — similar to those in approximately three-dozen other states prohibits direct government aid to educational institutions that have a religion affiliation.

Republican Gov. Eric Greitenss unexpected decision last week to change the policy and allow religion institutions to participate in the program raised questions about whether the constitutional oppose is now moot — but no one on the nine-member bench seemed ready to punt the lawsuit away.

Instead, an intensive hour of oral arguments focused on the merits.

“I’m not sure it’s a ‘free exercise'[ of religion] topic, ” told Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “No one is asking the church to change its beliefs. The nation is just saying it doesn’t want to be involved in devoting[ public] money to the church.”

But other members of the court questioned the church’s exclusion.

“You’re denying one set of performers from competing[ for the grant fund] because of religion, ” Justice Elena Kagan told. She called it a “clear burden on a constitutional right.”

The Constitution’s First Amendment speaks on religion in the public realm with two important provisions. The Establishment Clause prohibits the governmental forces from unduly preferring or promoting religion over non-religion, and vice versa. And the Free Exercise Clause protects Americans’ rights to practice their religion, absent a “compelling” government interest.

Gorsuch, the courts newest member, was subdued by comparison to his active involvement during his first two days of debates. He only asked a couple brief questions of the state’s lawyer near the end of arguments.

The Supreme Court accepted the church’s petition for review back in January 2016, when Justice Antonin Scalia was still the senior conservative. His death a month subsequently maintained the occurrence on hold, possibly because the eight justices believed they would ultimately tie. Such divides mean no nationwide precedent is set.

Trinity Lutheran’s high-profile case was finally put on the debate schedule for April, just in time for Gorsuch to perhaps cast the deciding vote.

The Christian church operates its Child Learning Center to serve families, incorporating “daily religion and developmentally appropriate activities in a preschool program.”

To minimize injuries on its playground, the church applied to the state’s “Scrap Tire Surface Material Grant” program, funded by a 50 -cent taxation on the acquisition of new tires. The church tells its application ranked fifth out of 44 other nonprofits, but was ultimately denied.

Missouri’s constitution tells “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, segment or denomination of religion.”

The high court has never fully answered whether “free exercise of religion” obligates states to provide taxpayer funds to religion organizations, through neutral means that do not promote faith-based notions or practices.

Teachers unions, meanwhile, worry a ruling favor Trinity Lutheran would add nationwide momentum for private school voucher programs, part of the school-choice movement which the Trump administration has promoted. And some organizations fear a sweeping conservative-majority tribunal sentiment would lead to discrimination with the backing of government money.

Into the debate jumped Gorsuch, who took hot from Senate Democrat during his confirmation over past instances dealing with religion, while serving as a federal appeals court magistrate in Denver for over a decade.

Perhaps the 49 -year-old justice’s highest-profile case was the 2013 concurrence supporting the right of for-profit, secular organizations( and individuals too, he argued) to oppose the Obama’s administration mandate to offer contraceptives to their workers. Gorsuch affirmed his past ardent commitment to religion liberty against claims of government “intrusion.”

Besides the Trinity case at hand, the Supreme Court in coming days could accept two other religious liberty disagreements for future review: Whether a Colorado baker and a Washington state florist can be compelled to do business with same-sex couples, which they say would violate their “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

The current suit is Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer( 15 -5 77 ). A ruling is expected in late June.

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