A MISSOURI case will be among the first where U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch will play a part in deliberations.
The Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., is at the center of the court battle over the separation of church and state. Or perhaps it's a case that involves religious freedom.
The church operates a preschool called the Learning Center and has a playground that serves the center's students, as well as the community at large. In 2012, Trinity applied for a state grant to help pay for a rubberized surface on its playground. Although Trinity's application placed fifth out of 44 grant requests, it was rejected after state officials invoked an amendment in the Missouri Constitution that appears to forbid aid to religious institutions.
A pair of courts have upheld the state's decision, based on the so-called Blaine Amendment, which is part of the constitutions in at least 30 states.
Although Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens announced last month that the state was reversing the policy, attorneys on both sides of the dispute agreed the case still needs to be decided. Justices of the Supreme Court agreed and heard arguments.
Kerri Kupec, representing Trinity and the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that excluding a grant for a playground that is open to an entire community does not match the intent of rules that prevent government from establishing or endorsing a particular religion. She said the case isn't about funding religious institutions but does involve public safety.
"We wouldn't say to a yeshiva or mosque or a parochial school or a temple that they can't call the fire department because they happen to be a religious organization," Kupec said.
Missourians pay a fee on tires that helps pay for recycling the rubber used to create safer surfaces on playgrounds.
"You have to pay that fee on the tire, but unfortunately the people of faith and their religious organizations can't benefit from this tire scrap program, even though their people are putting money into it," Kupec said.
During oral arguments, some justices seemed to challenge the state's argument that the state cannot offer services or support for religious entities. Justice Elena Kagan said it appears that "people of a certain religious status are being prevented from competing in the same way everybody else is for a neutral benefit."
A decision in the case is expected in June, and it could be a historic ruling.
If the high court rules for the state, it could affect hundreds of homeless shelters, soup kitchens, parochial schools and other programs sponsored, in whole or in part, by churches.
If the court rules for Trinity, it could make it clear that the U.S. Constitution's freedom of religion does not preclude any interaction between religious and governmental entities.
Either way, a Missouri court case will be at the heart of the precedent.