The United States Supreme Court will take on a major test of LGBT rights in cases that look at whether federal civil rights law bans job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The justices said on Monday they would hear cases involving people who claimed they were fired because of their sexual orientation and another that involved a funeral home employee who was fired after disclosing that she was transitioning from male to female and dressed as a woman.
The cases will be argued in the autumn, with decisions likely by June 2020 in the middle of the presidential election campaign.
The issue is whether Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination, protects LGBT people from job discrimination.
Title VII does not specifically mention sexual orientation or transgender status, but federal appeals courts in Chicago and New York have ruled recently that gay and lesbian employees are entitled to protection from discrimination.
The federal appeals court in Cincinnati has extended similar protections for transgender people.
The big question is whether the Supreme Court, with a strengthened conservative majority, will do the same.
The cases are the court’s first on LGBT rights since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the court’s major gay rights opinions.
US President Donald Trump has appointed two justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
The justices had been weighing whether to take on the cases since December, an unusually long time, before deciding to hear them.
It’s unclear what caused the delay.
The Obama administration had supported treating LGBT discrimination claims as sex discrimination, but the Trump administration has changed course.
The Justice Department under Trump has argued that Title VII was not intended to provide protection to gay or transgender workers.
The administration also separately withdrew Obama-era guidance to educators to treat claims of transgender students as sex discrimination.
The law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of “race, colour, religion, sex or national origin”.
Congress could change the civil rights law to specifically include LGBT people, supporters of the employers in these cases have said. But such a change is unlikely to become law with Republicans in charge of the Senate and Trump in the White House.
“Neither government agencies nor the courts have authority to rewrite federal law by replacing ‘sex’ with ‘gender identity,'” said John Bursch, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the funeral home.
Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for Human Rights Campaign, urged the Supreme Court to join a growing legal consensus “that our nation’s civil rights laws do protect LGBTQ people against discrimination under sex nondiscrimination laws.”