The Supreme Court divided along ideological lines Tuesday in sharply-debated cases over whether a federal civil rights law protects LGBTQ employees from job discrimination.
Hundreds of people on both sides of the issue rallied outside the court, many carrying rainbow flags.
The sidewalk and outdoor plaza were cleared after two suspicious packages were discovered in front of the courthouse, just before the justices heard the cases. Media, protesters, and those waiting in line for arguments were cleared from the immediate area.
Two gay men brought separate lawsuits alleging they were fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.
A transgender woman made a similar claim, after announcing to her co-workers at a funeral home she was transitioning from male to female.
Some conservative justices said Congress never considered LGBTQ employees when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, aimed at ending discrimination “because of… sex.”
Others on the bench said courts have and should continue to hear such disputes in the absence of any recent legislation.
“The text of the statute appears to be pretty firmly” in favor of the two gay employees bringing suit, said Justice Elena Kagan. “Did you discriminate against somebody… because of sex? Yes, you did. Because you fired the person because this was a man who loved other men.”
But Justice Samuel Alito worried about judicial intervention at this stage.
“Congress has been asked repeatedly in the years since 1964 to address this question,” he said. “Congress has declined or failed to act on these requests. And if the Court takes this up and interprets this 1964 statute to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, we will be acting exactly like a legislature.”
The high court’s 2015 landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide opened the door to subsequent legal challenges over the rights enjoyed by those in the LGBTQ community. The transgender case could also impact pending appeals in a range of lawsuits against businesses that claim a religious liberty right to deny their services, a view the Trump administration has often embraced.
Twenty-one states currently have anti-discrimination laws that specifically include gay and lesbian people.