Apple's Cook signals front line of new gay rights battle

(Reuters) - In his essay coming out as gay, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook criticized an Arizona proposal that would have given private business owners the ability to deny services to gay people on religious grounds.

Cook on Thursday became the most prominent American corporate leader to come out, saying he was trading his closely guarded privacy for the chance to help move civil rights forward.

His discussion of the Arizona proposal and other laws allowing gay employees to be fired highlights a new stage in the gay rights debate, after conservative challenges to same sex marriage were beaten down in several appeals courts.

Now courts across the country are trying to balance the civil rights of gay people and some religious business owners. A Washington state florist, bakers in Colorado and Oregon, and a bed-and-breakfast owner in Hawaii all are refusing to provide services to gay couples, citing religious beliefs.

In Massachusetts, a gay food service manager sued a religious school after it pulled a job offer upon learning of his husband.

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a string of rulings friendly to gay marriage over the past two years. Most recently, the high court effectively legalized same sex nuptials in several states when it refused to overturn lower court rulings.

However, the high court has also been assertive in protecting religious freedom. In an opinion earlier this year, the court allowed a business owner to avoid an Obamacare requirement for employee birth control, citing the owner’s religious beliefs.

That case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, has now surfaced in a dispute between two gay California women and a Hawaii bed and breakfast owner who refused to rent a room to them. A Hawaii judge ruled the business owner violated an antidiscrimination law, and she appealed.

“Because of her sincerely held religious beliefs, she does not allow unmarried opposite-sex couples or same-sex couples to rent a room with a single bed together,” her lawyers said in a court filing. They later cited the Hobby Lobby decision, saying it limits the government’s ability to compel religious objectors to change their business practices.

Lawyers for the business owner did not immediately respond to a call for comment.

The California couple’s lawyers argued Hobby Lobby provides no shield for discrimination even if cloaked as religious practice. The case is still pending at a Hawaii appeals court.

Jennifer Pizer, Law and Policy Project Director for gay rights group Lambda Legal, said the Supreme Court could be even more deferential to religious groups in future cases.

“That affects the overall landscape in a very profound way, and often not in a good way for gay people,” she said.

The Arizona proposal was passed by the state legislature and vetoed by the governor earlier this year. Other states considering religious exemption bills include Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, South Dakota and Tennessee, Pizer said.

Reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco and Fiona Ortiz in Chicago, editing by Peter Henderson