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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.


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