New Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch continued his first week on the bench with what many Court watchers have said could be the most important case of this term. The justices heard oral arguments April 19 on “the Playground Case,” which involves a church-owned preschool’s fight to participate in a state grant program.
Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., sued the state after its preschool was denied participation in a program that funds safer recreation spaces for kids. (Trinity’s playground is gravel, but operators wanted to replace it with a rubberized surface made from recycled tires.)
The preschool was denied funding, even though it ranked fifth out of 44 applicants, and 14 of those applicants received grants the year the school applied, USA Today reported. At issue is a Missouri provision that prohibits religious institutions from receiving public money.
But multiple media outlets reported that opening arguments before the Supreme Court favored the Missouri church, with even some liberal-leaning justices appearing to side with the preschool’s right to participate in the program.
According to USA Today, concerns raised by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer during the oral arguments could result in a 7-2 decision (should conservatives John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch move in the expected direction). However, the newspaper reported, the Court will perhaps rule “on narrow grounds, so as not to set a broad, nationwide precedent on public funding for religious institutions.”
It’s also possible that the Court could rule the case moot, since Missouri Governor Eric Greitens recently instructed the state’s Department of Natural Resources to allow churches to apply for and receive funding from state grant programs.
Prior to Tuesday’s arguments, the case was thought to be an issue on which Gorsuch would help shift the Court toward the school’s side. The former appellate judge previously ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in the company’s fight over the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that corporations cover birth control—including drugs such as Plan B and Ella—in their employee health care plans.
The Playground Case has been in a holding pattern for more than a year since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and a subsequent Senate hold on former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, left the Court with only eight justices.