Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. answers legislators’ questions Monday before the Senate Courts of Justice/House Judicial Panel at the Capitol in Richmond. (Bob. A Brown/AP)

The GOP’s choice for Virginia’s highest court made comments about gay rights and religious liberties Monday that sounded out of step with one of the party’s top priorities for the coming legislative session.

During a morning interview with legislators, Court of Appeals Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. was asked whether he believed someone engaged in commerce could turn away lesbian, gay or transgender customers if serving them would conflict with the businessperson’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

“There is no reason whatsoever why any person in the United States of America should be denied equal privileges that we all enjoy under the law,” Alston said.

The comment drew notice, especially since Republican lawmakers have been looking for ways to protect religious freedom after a Supreme Court ruling affirming gay couples’ right to marry in all 50 states.

But one Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said Alston’s comment was vague and premised on what is allowed “under the law.” Virginia law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against gays, lesbians or transgender people.

The discussion of gay rights briefly injected a social issue into a judicial battle that has been notably devoid of substantive issues. The controversy has turned almost entirely on the question of who has the authority to fill the Supreme Court slot.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) posed the gay-rights question to Alston, but Democrats moved on after the judge provided an answer that appeared to be in step with their own gay-rights position.

The General Assembly is meeting Monday for a special session on redistricting called by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

Republicans are trying to use the occasion to unseat Supreme Court Justice Jane Marum Roush, whom McAuliffe appointed while the General Assembly was out of session in July. Such recess appointments expire 30 days after the legislature comes back into session, and the Republican leadership of the House and Senate have said they will oust her by putting Alston in her place.