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ACLU to fight "religious freedom" movement

NEW YORK -- ACLU officials say the civil-rights group is tweaking and relaunching its #Out4Freedom campaign to fight "religious freedom" bills that are designed as licenses to discriminate.

The #Out4Freedom campaign has been used to build support for marriage equality nationwide, but will now be expanded to spread awareness of the discriminatory nature of the so-called "religious freedom" bills.

James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project, said it is no accident that a number of legislatures in red states are planning to introduce various varieties of the "religious freedom" bill that was passed earlier this year by the Arizona legislature before a nationwide uproar pressured Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the measure.

Anti-gay groups, which include hate groups and Religious Right extremists, have been successful for many years to either stop or curtail advances in gay rights, but Esseks said the swift progress on issues such as same-sex marriage have forced them to move from Plan A to Plan B.

Esseks said Plan A is now in ruins as LGBT rights have advanced significantly in recent years, ranging from the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to the legalization of gay marriage for about 60% of America. But he said Plan B is just as chilling, and not just to the LGBT community.

"Plan B is using 'religious freedom' as an excuse to discriminate against anyone you don't like," he said, meaning LGBT and other minority groups.

"They don't want LGBT rights to affect them."

By opening Pandora's box under the guise of "religious freedom," people could fire employees they didn't like, whether LGBT or not; deny anyone housing or public accommodations; and claim their faith allows them to beat their children and spouse. He said "religious freedom" would be expansive and impact most existing laws, and would set up numerous faith-based challenges to those laws.

Eunice Rho, ACLU advocacy and policy counsel, said the Michigan House has already passed a "religious freedom" bill that must be acted upon by the state Senate by Dec. 18 before the lame-duck session ends. That bill is shocking in that it would allow medical personnel to deny treatment based on religious beliefs, such as providing birth control pills or condoms, denying service to HIV patients or opting out of emergency treatment of a Muslim patient.

Rho said Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Utah likely would be the next battleground states on this issue.

"We've only seen the tip of the iceberg," Rho said, adding that she fears there will be an onslaught of similar bills proposed when legislatures return from the holidays.

Of the 10 attempts to pass "religious freedom" bill in the past year, only Mississippi has enshrined discrimination in the law. Esseks described the law that Mississippi eventually passed as a "watered down" version of the original bill.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 -- signed into law by President Bill Clinton -- already addresses the issue, Esseks said, but that's not good enough for those who oppose gay rights.

Anti-gay activists say they want to protect public servants who object to gay marriage, for example, from being "forced" to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Esseks wondered how issuing a marriage license can violate anyone's religious beliefs. "Your job is to serve the public equally," he said. "It's not an endorsement of gay marriage ... It's simply doing your job."

Esseks said the #Out4Freedom campaign will lobby in states where "religious freedom" bills are debated and rally the business, social and faith communities to condemn efforts to enshrine discrimination in state laws or state constitutions.

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Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.