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Shifting boundaries on religious liberty

A group from the Concerned Women for America,

A group from the Concerned Women for America, a Christian women's activist group, shows their support as the Supreme Court justices ruled 7-2 for Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo., Monday, June 26, 2017, in Washington. Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

As a nation, we are always testing the limits of religious liberty and the strength of the wall between church and state. How far does the First Amendment right to freely exercise our faith extend before it crashes into the amendment’s other protection that the government not favor one set of religious beliefs?

This constitutional struggle comes in waves, and with the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, now on the U.S. Supreme Court, rulings released Monday indicate that we are entering another era of resetting boundaries. As the nation becomes more pluralistic, these boundaries must be tread cautiously.

The court ruled 7-2 that Missouri unlawfully denied a Lutheran Church that operates a preschool from participating in a state program that provided nonprofit groups with funds to improve playground safety. The majority said this was a neutral government program and not really about religion at all. In a bizarre footnote that likely highlights brewing philosophical fights behind the scenes, the court even went out of its way to say the case was just about “playground resurfacing.” It’s hard to argue with the logic there. But in a separate opinion, Gorsuch argued that it was really a major ruling for religious liberty.

That sets the stage for a 5-year-old case involving a baker in Colorado who refused a custom wedding cake order from a gay couple, claiming that same-sex marriage violated his religious beliefs. Gay rights advocates compare such views with a restaurant still refusing to serve a black customer after Jim Crow laws have been knocked down. The case had been ignored since January, with the court unable to find the fourth vote to earn it a review. On Monday it got one, presumably from Gorsuch. The case, which is anything but neutral, will be argued in the fall. — The editorial board