Discrimination Isn't Part of Religious Freedom. Never Was. Still Isn't.

03/05/2014 12:29 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2014

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, it's ironic to see the same kinds of bigotry outlawed by that landmark legislation specifically protected by law in several states and considered by state legislatures in many others.

The mindset behind this recent wave of legislation hasn't changed a bit; only the targets. This time it's gay men and women. But what has truly evolved is that these appeals to our most parochial and tribal instincts are now cloaking themselves in religion.

The Republican message machine has always been adept at "issue framing," changing the label on controversial issues to try to change the way we view them. The Federal Inheritance Tax became the Death Tax, Global Warming became Climate Change, drilling for oil became energy exploration, tax cuts for the wealthy became tax reform, and protecting businesses from lawsuits over consumer fraud or faulty products became tort reform. But this time, they've taken issue framing to new heights: business discrimination against certain people is now part of religious freedom.

State legislatures in Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Tennessee, Utah, Kentucky and Arizona have all considered legislation that, according to the new framing of the issue, "expands" the freedom of religion by allowing businesses to withhold the sale of products or services to certain people based on the business owner's religious beliefs.

Arizona's statute was vetoed by its civil libertarian governor Jan Brewer, who had enough common sense or strong advisers to forestall the ensuing economic Armageddon. In several of the other states, the fervor for similar bills is fading.

The "Religious Right" may characterize this as a matter of religious freedom. But where in any religion, especially Christianity, does it even suggest that treating some people as less than others is okay? Where is discrimination against certain individuals based on who or what they are, rather than what they do, considered part of the practice of religion?

The expansion of religious freedom may be a new way to frame this issue. But the issue of discrimination against individuals has been with us for a long time. In the past, it was against African-Americans. And Hispanics. And Irish and Chinese and Japanese. And women.

New label. Same old bigotry.