By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Justice Samuel Alito on Thursday laid out a possible agenda for the U.S. Supreme Court if it regains its conservative majority as expected after Donald Trump takes office, citing gun rights and religious freedom as among key issues it will tackle in the coming years.
Alito, one of the court's two most conservative justices along with Clarence Thomas, pointed to freedom of speech and a disruption of the U.S. Constitution's separation of powers caused by federal agencies expanding their authority at the expense of the U.S. Congress as other "constitutional fault lines" that could come before the court.
Speaking at a meeting of the Federalist Society, a group of conservative lawyers, Alito paid tribute to Antonin Scalia, the conservative justice who died in February. Senate Republicans, in an action with little precedent in U.S. history, refused to act on Democratic President Barack Obama's nominee to replace Scalia, Merrick Garland, in the hope that a Republican would win the Nov. 8 presidential election and make the appointment.
Trump, a Republican who takes office on Jan. 20, is set to make the pick, which would restore a fifth conservative vote on the nine-seat court that currently is evenly split with four liberals and four conservatives.
On freedom of speech, Alito, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush in 2006, referred to college campus culture that conservatives say stifles free speech to avoid offending political sensibilities on matters such as gender, race and religion.
He also pointed to support among liberals to limit political spending. Democrats have condemned the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling, with Alito in the majority, that allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions in political advocacy. The Supreme Court has said political spending is a form of protected speech under the Constitution's First Amendment.
Freedom of religion is in "even greater danger," Alito said.
He cited a case the high court refused to hear in June as an example.
The justices turned away an appeal by a family-owned pharmacy that cited Christian beliefs in objecting to providing emergency contraceptives to women under a Washington state rule. Critics of that pharmacy objected to the family imposing its religious beliefs on customers.
In reference to gun rights, Alito mentioned Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the court found an individual right to bear arms for self defense. Breyer's dissent, in which he argued that the Constitution's Second Amendment protects militia-related and not self-defense-related gun rights and it does not absolutely bar government action on guns, gave a "roadmap" to those who would seek to undermine the ruling, Alito said.
Alito also assailed federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for seeking to expand their power beyond what was allowed under laws passed by Congress.
The Federalist Society meeting includes among its speakers nine of the 21 conservative jurists who Trump has said he would consider to fill Scalia's seat.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)