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Supreme Court hears Missouri church playground case

Michael Doyle, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Liberal and conservative Supreme Court justices alike sounded sympathetic Wednesday to a Missouri church that says it was unfairly denied a state grant for playground improvements.

They didn't appear unanimous. But a majority of the court -- reinforced by rookie conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch -- seemed inclined to think a Missouri state agency had violated the First Amendment in 2012 when it rejected a grant application by the Columbia-based Trinity Lutheran Church.

Officials said then that the state constitutional ban on funding for "any church, sect or denomination of religion" constrained them.

The tenor of the justices' questions during the hourlong oral argument hinted at disagreements, but with a tilt toward the church's position in a case that could have widespread implications in dozens of other states.

"It does seem this is a clear burden on a constitutional right," Justice Elena Kagan told Missouri's attorney, James R. Layton, adding that "you're depriving one set of actors from being able to compete in the same way everyone else can compete because of their religious identification."

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. likewise pressed Layton hard, telling the state's former solicitor general at one point that "I don't understand the basis of your position."

But with Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens reversing course last Friday, allowing religious organizations to obtain grants like the one denied Trinity Lutheran, some justices suggested the highly anticipated case might have simply become irrelevant.

"Why isn't this case moot?" Justice Stephen Breyer asked, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor adding that she was worried about the same problem.

The church's attorney, David A. Cortman of the group Alliance Defending Freedom, countered that "if the political winds change," then Greitens' policy reversal might be undone. A state-level legal challenge contending Greitens' move violated the state's constitutional language could also ensue, leading inevitably back to the Supreme Court.

"This isn't a permanent change, by any means," Cortman said.

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