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What you need to know about the big abortion and LGBT cases at the Supreme Court

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The U.S. Supreme Court (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

U.S. Supreme Court takes on high-stakes abortion case

By Robin Bravender

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a high-profile case that could have major implications for abortion rights in states across the country.

The justices announced that they will hear an appeal in a case over a Louisiana law that requires any physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, which critics warn would severely hamper access to those services.

The high court previously struck down a similar law in Texas, but the court’s stance on the issue may shift in the wake of the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sided with the court’s liberal wing in the Texas case. Kennedy was replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who previously voted against an effort to temporarily block the Louisiana law.

Opponents challenging the Louisiana law have argued that it would have “disastrous consequences” for women in Louisiana, and would leave only one physician providing abortions in the entire state. That can’t possibly meet the needs of the roughly 10,000 women who seek abortion services in Louisiana each year, they told [2] the Supreme Court.

The state law, critics warn, is unconstitutional because it offers no benefits to women’s health that could justify the burdens on abortion access.

In February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to temporarily block the law from taking effect. Four conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh — said they would have denied the request to stay the law.

In a dissent, Kavanaugh wrote that he would have allowed the law to take effect because the appeals court had said “the new law would not affect the availability of abortions from … the four doctors who currently perform abortions at Louisiana’s three abortion clinics.”

NPR reported [3] at the time, “Kavanaugh’s dissent deferred to the precedent of the case in which the restrictive Texas law was overturned in 2016. But dissent signals Kavanaugh’s openness to state restrictions on abortion rights with limitations and without overturning Roe v. Wade outright.”

Kennedy was the swing vote on a host of contentious issues, including on the 2016 decision [4] in the case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which rejected a Texas abortion law, finding it overly burdensome. The Louisiana law now in question is nearly identical to the Texas law that was struck down by the high court when Kennedy was on the bench.

A federal appeals court upheld Louisiana’s law despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Texas case.

The justices will hear oral arguments in the Louisiana case — June Medical Services LLC v. Gee — in the coming months and will issue an opinion before their term concludes in June 2020.

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U.S. Supreme Court to hear LGBTQ rights case on Tuesday

By Allison Stevens

WASHINGTON — Can employers legally fire people simply because they’re gay, lesbian or transgender?

That is the question at the crux of a trio of cases that will come before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday — the second day of its new term.

Plaintiffs argue that federal laws that ban sex discrimination in the workplace encompass discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Defendants – and allies including the Trump administration – argue that they don’t.

The law at issue — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — bans discrimination on sex, race, and other characteristics but does not specifically mention sexual orientation or gender identity. Legislation that would amend the law to specifically name those characteristics passed the U.S. House in May but is not expected to pass the Senate.

The cases have major implications for the country.

Nearly five percent of U.S. adults – more than 11 million people — identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and many report workplace discrimination.

The high court legalized gay marriage in 2015, but more than half of states don’t have statutes protecting LGBTQ people from workplace discrimination.

At the heart of Tuesday’s cases are Aimee Stephens of Michigan, a transgender woman, and two gay men, Gerald Bostock of Georgia and Donald Zarda of New York.

Stephens, a former funeral director and embalmer at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in the Detroit area, was fired in 2013 after notifying her boss she intended to transition from male to female. She filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which filed a complaint against the funeral home in 2014.

Harris Funeral Homes argues that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act doesn’t protect people on the basis of gender identity, but a federal appellate court disagreed.

Bostock and Zarda, meanwhile, also contend that they were fired in violation of Title VII’s protections. Bostock, a social worker, lost his job after joining a gay softball league, and Zarda, a skydiving instructor, was fired after informing a customer of his sexual orientation. Zarda, who died in 2014, is represented by his sister and partner.

One federal appeals court ruled that Zarda’s termination was tantamount to discrimination on the basis of sex and was therefore a violation of the Civil Rights Act. In Bostock’s case, another federal appeals court ruled that Title VII doesn’t apply to sexual orientation.

The cases — Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, Bostock v. Clayton County and Altitude Express v. Zarda – will shed important light on how the current court views LGBTQ rights. Eyes will be on Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who last year replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy, a pivotal swing vote on matters of social policy.

The high court is also slated to review controversial cases relating to immigration, health care, guns, abortion and other issues this term. Rulings aren’t expected until the spring or summer of next year and have the potential to influence the 2020 presidential elections.

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Robin Bravender and Allison Stevens write for the Washington bureau of the Newsroom Network [5], of which NC Policy Watch is a member.