Gorsuch Will Have Immediate Effect On Gun Rights, Religious Liberty Cases

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Justice Neil Gorsuch’s installation on the Supreme Court will likely have a dispositive effect on several high-profile cases, which could set a rightward tack for a bench that has listed to the left over the past year.

In his first weeks on the tribunal, Gorsuch and his new colleagues will review a landmark establishment clause controversy and decide whether to hear cases implicating the rights of gun-owners and religious objectors.

The justices will hear arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer April 19. The case asks to the Court to decide whether churches and faith-based organizations may be excluded from neutral, secular aid programs administered by state governments. The controversy arose after the state of Missouri denied a Lutheran church a grant to finance the purchase of rubber surfacing material for a playground operated by the congregation’s daycare.

Though the state provides funding for such projects at secular institutions, it denied Trinity Lutheran a grant because it is a religious entity.

The Court decided to hear the case in January 2o16, just weeks before Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. Since then, the justices delayed scheduling the case for argument several times. As such, it’s safe to assume the justices are divided along ideological lines, giving Gorsuch the decisive fifth vote to resolve the controversy.

Decisions on several noteworthy petitions might also be dictated by Gorsuch’s arrival. During a conference Thursday, the justices will decide whether to hear a religious liberty challenge involving a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, as well as a case concerning the right of gun-owners to carry firearms outside the home.

The religious liberty case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, has been pending before the Court since July 2016. Thus far, it appears the Court has put off a decision as to whether to hear the case. The petition has been scheduled — and rescheduled — for review during private conferences over half a dozen times, which likely reflects a shared aversion to taking an especially controversial case without a full complement of justices.

Though it’s not clear the Court will ultimately hear the case, Gorsuch’s arrival will probably force a decision after months of delay.

The other case, a Second Amendment controversy arising from California, would be the biggest gun-rights decision in several years, should the justices agree to hear it.

In D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, the Court ruled that the Constitution protects the right to keep functional firearms in the home for self-defense, and that state and local governments cannot infringe upon said right. The challenge now pending before the Court, Peruta v. California, involves the right to carry a firearm outside the home for self-defense.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in 2016 affording county governments in California significant leeway in the issuance of concealed carry permits. Some permit regimes in the state are fairly accommodating of applicants, while others make it functionally impossible to obtain a concealed carry license. A group of Second Amendment applicants challenged the 9th Circuit’s decision.

Should the justices take the case and side with the activists, they could announce a constitutionally-protected right to bear firearms outside the home for the first time in American history.

Gorsuch’s formal investiture will take place during a private ceremony at the Supreme Court Monday morning where Chief Justice John Roberts will preside. A public ceremony at the White House administered by Justice Anthony Kennedy will follow.

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