This week, Americans United launched a new initiative, Protect Thy Neighbor (PTN), which is intended to stop religious zealots from using “religious freedom” as an excuse to discriminate against others. Unsurprisingly, those who are intent on discriminating against LGBT persons and others were none too happy about AU’s announcement.

Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins took to one of FRC’s many publications to denounce AU’s work as evidence of Christian “persecution.”

Starting with Christian colleges, [American United Executive Director Barry] Lynn’s ‘Protect Thy Neighbor’ project promises to use the IRS as a weapon to force same-sex ‘married’ housing on universities with natural marriage views,” Perkins whined.

This is a blatant mischaracterization of the goal of Protect Thy Neighbor. PTN says nothing about the IRS. Instead, PTN is mainly intended to ensure that same-sex couples are not denied service by government employees and that LGBT persons are not refused service by private businesses simply because of their orientation.

Perkins also seems to think Americans United is some sort of IRS puppet master. No individual group is able to “weaponize” the IRS. While AU does submit complaints to the IRS from time to time concerning church politicking – just as anyone is free to do – the tax agency can act upon or ignore those complaints as it sees fit. Americans United has no control over what action is or is not taken by any government office.

FRC is not alone in trying to distract from the real problems of religious-based discrimination. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said this month that legal action will be taken against Christian organizations that do not support marriage equality.

“It’s just a matter of time before lawsuits are filed against churches and religious organizations, trying to strip them of their tax-exempt status if they don’t toe the line on gay marriage and other progressive causes,” O’Reilly opined.  

The reality is, no one knows yet what will happen to private colleges that refuse to extend benefits to married same-sex couples. Many of them accept a lot of taxpayer money, so litigation is certainly a possibility. But right now, PTN is focused on bringing recalcitrant government officials into line, such as county clerks who won’t issue wedding licenses to same-sex couples.

As for churches – they are safe. The IRS has never stripped a church of its tax exemption because of its beliefs. Churches will not be forced to marry gay couples, just as they have never been forced to marry non-Christians or anyone else they don’t want to serve.    

The real threat, which Perkins and O’Reilly don’t want to admit, is not to churches being ground under the thumb of a secular government. The danger is to LGBT persons who are denied equal treatment by the government in the name of “religious freedom.”

This week, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback issued executive order 15-05, which purports to prohibit the state from discriminating against religious organizations that hold “the belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”  

The order is being portrayed as a measure designed to protect houses of worship from being compelled to participate in same-sex marriages. But as Americans United points out, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already guarantees churches the right to offer religious sacraments only to the couples of their choosing.The real purpose of the directive is to allow religious organizations to discriminate against LGBT citizens and others – even when those groups are receiving taxpayer funding. For example, it will permit blatant discrimination against LGBT people by religious foster care agencies, homeless shelters, food pantries and other social service entities.

This is precisely the sort of activity that PTN is out to stop. But don’t tell that to Perkins, who thinks Americans United should be worrying about Christians.

“[I]f Barry Lynn wants to protect his neighbors, maybe he ought to start with the ones who are actually being persecuted: Christians!” Perkins claimed.

Like most of the Religious Right, Perkins confuses not getting his way with actual persecution. The two things are far from analogous. Marriage equality is no threat to Christian belief. Private business owners that are required to serve LGBT persons are in no way being forced to violate their consciences. And no one will be punished for failure to support marriage equality.

In truth, Perkins and his allies just don’t like LGBT persons and they’re out to stop gays from being treated with dignity. That is the reason PTN was launched: to make sure that everyone has access to the civil rights afforded to them by the First Amendment.