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The Supreme Court is now considering cases that could usher in nationwide marriage equality, and state-level gay marriage bans are falling faster than you can say “equal protection under the law.”

People who want to turn back the clock on rights for their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) neighbors are struggling to find new ways to do so. Public opinion is turning against them, and the courts have followed.

Facing one legal defeat after another, anti-LGBT forces have latched on to a troubling new approach: cloaking discrimination in the language of religious liberty.

In states across the country — including Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming — right-wing legislators have introduced bills that could let business owners and others ignore anti-discrimination laws in the name of religion.

These so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, mostly modeled after a 1993 federal law, sound harmless enough. After all, individual religious freedom is a core principle of our country’s laws, rightly enshrined in the First Amendment. It’s a liberty that must be cherished and protected.

But these bills aren’t really about protecting the rights of religious people — they’re about giving some people the ability to avoid following laws that apply to everyone else. They’re more accurately described as “right to discriminate” bills.

The federal law that these state-level bills were based on was grossly distorted by the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision last year. That ruling turned “religious freedom” from a shield to protect an individual’s right to practice his or her religion into a sword allowing businesses to ignore laws they don’t like — even when it harms others.

With the passage of state-level laws, the risk is that business owners could cite religious beliefs to argue that laws banning discrimination against LGBT people simply don’t apply to them.

From there it’s a slippery slope.

What if business owners claim that their religious beliefs should exempt them from being required to pay minimum wage? And what if people claim religious “exemptions” from laws that protect children and spouses from domestic violence?

This is wrong.

Our country established many years ago that businesses can’t deny service because of the color of a customer’s skin or their ethnic heritage. The same principle should apply here.

Giving business owners the ability to, in essence, hang a “No Gays” sign on their door flies in the face of deeply held American values about dignity and equality.

This isn’t a partisan issue. The widespread concern over state-specific “right to discriminate” laws landed in the national spotlight last year when Arizona governor Jan Brewer — a Republican — vetoed one.

Brewer’s decision followed immense pressure from unexpected sources. Arizona’s Republican senators, major companies like Apple and American Airlines, and even multiple state senators who had initially voted for the bill all came out against it after its implications became clear.

Such legislation failed in several other states last year as well. But this year the bills are resurfacing. Americans who support both religious liberty and equality under the law should speak out against these efforts to disguise anti-gay bigotry as a means of protecting religious freedom.

The belief that all people deserve equal treatment regardless of whom they love prevailed in Arizona. It can prevail across the nation.

Peter Montgomery is a Senior Fellow at People for the American Way.

Originally posted at Other Words.

Photo: American Life League via Flickr

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