WASHINGTON -- A seemingly divided Supreme Court struggled Tuesday over whether a landmark civil rights law protects LGBT people from discrimination in employment, with one conservative justice wondering if the court should take heed of "massive social upheaval" that could follow a ruling in their favor.

With the court's four liberal justices likely to side with workers who were fired because of their sexual orientation or transgender status, the question in two highly anticipated cases that filled the courtroom was whether one of the court's conservatives might join them.

Two hours of lively arguments touched on sex-specific bathrooms, locker rooms and dress codes, and even a reference to the androgynous character known simply as Pat on "Saturday Night Live" in the early 1990s.

A key provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 known as Title 7 bars job discrimination because of sex, among other reasons. In recent years, some courts have read that language to include discrimination against LGBT people as a subset of sex discrimination.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's first Supreme Court appointee, said there are strong arguments favoring the LGBT workers. But Gorsuch suggested that maybe Congress, not the courts, should change the law because of the upheaval that could ensue. "It's a question of judicial modesty," Gorsuch said.

David Cole, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing fired transgender funeral home director Aimee Stephens, said the situation at the court itself showed such concerns were overblown.

"There are transgender male lawyers in this courtroom following the male dress code and going to the men's room and the court's dress code and sex-segregated restrooms have not fallen," Cole said.

Two other conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, did not squarely indicate their views, although Roberts questioned how employers with religious objections to hiring LGBT people might be affected by the outcome.

The first of two cases involved a skydiving instructor and a county government worker in Georgia who were fired for being gay. The second case involves transgender people, and the audience in the courtroom included Stephens, transgender actor Laverne Cox and some people who had waited in line since the weekend for Tuesday's arguments.

The Trump administration and lawyers for the employers hit hard on the changes that might be required in bathrooms, locker rooms, women's shelters and school sports teams if the court were to rule that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers LGBT people. Lawmakers, not unelected judges, should change the law, they argued.

Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative, seemed to agree with that argument, saying Congress in 1964 did not envision covering sexual orientation or gender identity.

"You're trying to change the meaning of 'sex,'" Alito said. Justice Clarence Thomas, who returned to the bench Tuesday after staying home sick the day before, said nothing, as is his custom.

If the votes of some conservative justices seemed in doubt, the liberals' views were clear.

"And we can't deny that homosexuals are being fired merely for being who they are," Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. "At what point do we say we have to step in?"

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Thank you for Reading!

Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase a subscription to read or post comments.