Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch heard oral arguments in his first major case on Wednesday — a legal fight over religious freedom that could have a wide-reaching impact on religious institutions.
The case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, is based on a church-owned preschool’s claim that it was blocked from getting a grant for materials to resurface their playground because of its connection to Trinity Lutheran Church.
All eyes were on Gorsuch as he is the court’s newest justice and he was confirmed only after a politically-charged battle in the U.S. Senate. However, freshman Supreme Court justice reportedly didn’t say anything until the end of the proceedings.
Even before Gorsuch's input, the Supreme Court seemed to be leaning toward siding on the side of religious freedom after the first hour of oral argument, according to SCOTUS Blog’s Amy Howe:
After roughly an hour of oral argument, the state seemed to have only two certain votes – those of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Moreover, the justices seemed inclined to go ahead and decide the case even though Missouri had announced last week that it had changed the policy at issue in the case to allow churches to compete for the grants in the future. The end result could be an important ruling on the disbursement of funds by state and local governments to religious institutions.
Arguing on behalf of Trinity Lutheran, David Cortman reiterated that the church’s preschool had been excluded from the state-run grant program solely because it was operated by a church. Ginsburg didn’t seem to see a problem with that proposition. She noted that in 1947, in a case called Everson v. Board of Education, the court had ruled that the Framers didn’t want tax money going to maintain churches or property. Shouldn’t that principle, she asked, govern here?
Cortman responded that this case is different, because the state can’t deprive religious groups of general government benefits like funding for playground resurfacing. But Sotomayor expressed doubt that the playground could be separated out from the church’s religious work. The playground is part of the ministry of the church, she suggested. Cortman urged the justices to focus on where the money goes; here, he emphasized, the money goes only to the playground resurfacing.
Only at the end of oral arguments did Gorsuch speak up, asking the attorney representing the state of Missouri how excluding the church in the specific government program was any “better” than excluding them in a more general government program.
The attorney, James Layton, claimed the selective programs like the one at the center of the case are more visible to the public and could suggest a government endorsement of a religious institution or its mission.
A skeptical Gorsuch reportedly then pressed the attorney to explain how the state would go about making such distinctions.
The Supreme Court will likely render a decision in the religious liberty case sometime in June.