WASHINGTON, April 16 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court is set this week to hear a closely watched case testing the limits of religious rights, and new Justice Neil Gorsuch’s judicial record indicates he could tip the court toward siding with a church challenging Missouri’s ban on state funding of religious entities.

Trinity Lutheran Church, which is located in Columbia, Missouri and runs a preschool and daycare center, said Missouri unlawfully excluded it from a grant program providing state funds to nonprofit groups to buy rubber playground surfaces. Missouri’s constitution prohibits “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state taxpayer money.

Gorsuch, who embraced an expansive view of religious rights as a Colorado-based federal appeals court judge, on Monday hears his first arguments since becoming a justice last week. He will be on the bench on Wednesday when the justices hear the Trinity Lutheran case, one of the most important of their current term.

Gorsuch, appointed by President Donald Trump, restored the Supreme Court’s 5-4 conservative majority.

Trinity Lutheran wanted public funds to replace its playground’s gravel with a rubber surface made from recycled tires that would be safer for children to play on.

The U.S. Constitution calls for a separation of church and state and guarantees the free exercise of religion.

At the very least, a victory for Trinity Lutheran would help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety.

But it also could bolster the case for using public money for vouchers to help pay for children to attend religious schools rather than public schools in “school choice” programs backed by many conservatives. For example, Colorado’s top court in 2015 found that a Douglas County voucher program violated a state constitutional provision similar to Missouri’s.

Trinity Lutheran’s legal effort is being spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal activist group, which argues Missouri’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.

If the church wins,…