By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO (Reuters) - With the U.S. gay marriage battle looking increasingly like a lost cause for conservative opponents, a last battleground may be their quest to allow people to refuse services to gay men and women on religious grounds.
Some conservative groups have seized on what they consider religious freedom cases, ranging from a Washington state florist to bakers in Colorado and Oregon who are fighting civil rights lawsuits after refusing to provide goods and services to gay couples.
"You'll have more instances where religious liberty will potentially come into conflict with this new redefined way of understanding marriage," said Jim Campbell of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group established to defend religious freedom.
Campbell represented New Mexico's Elane Photography, a small company that was sued after the owner declined to provide services for a same-sex commitment ceremony.
Such cases, experts said, will likely become more common after action by the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts this week extended gay marriage to more than half the states.
Several states have considered new broadly worded laws that among other things would permit people to deny services to gay people on religious grounds.
In Arizona, the Republican-led legislature passed such a measure but Republican Governor Jan Brewer vetoed it in February. A similar bill was considered but not passed by the Kansas legislature.
'CONSISTENT WITH THEIR FAITH'
New Mexico's state Supreme Court in 2013 upheld a judgment against Elane Photography, which was ordered to pay legal fees for the couple who complained of discrimination.
"We think other courts will get it right," said Campbell. "We believe the Constitution protects the right of all citizens including business owners to live in a way consistent with their faith."
The Alliance represents other defendants such as the owner of Colorado's Masterpiece Cakeshop, who was sued for discrimination when he declined to make a cake for a same-sex commitment ceremony.
Colorado's Civil Rights Commission ruled in favor of the couple who filed the complaint. The case is now with the Colorado Court of Appeals.
Twenty-one states ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. American Civil Liberties Union lawyer James Esseks said that in the 29 states that do not, gay men and women already have little recourse if they wish to complain about discrimination.
In light of the pro-gay marriage rulings, Esseks predicted more state legislatures will consider new religious liberty laws that would allow businesses and individuals to deny services to gay people on religious grounds.
"These are attempts to give people a license to discriminate," Esseks said. "We think that's not what religious liberty means in America."
In Wisconsin, where voters passed a ban on gay marriage in 2006 that has been overturned by the courts, the Wisconsin Family Action group said it is being more aggressive in contacting business owners, churches and pastors to offer support if they want to refuse service to same-sex couples.
"We will certainly be working on conscience protection for the good people of Wisconsin who may find themselves in the crosshairs of this issue because they hold a set of beliefs that is contrary to what has happened in this state," said Wisconsin Family Action President Julaine Appling.
Even if the Supreme Court decides to take up the issue down the road, it will be difficult to reverse the uniform tide of lower court rulings favoring gay marriage, said University of Illinois political science professor Jason Pierceson.
Pierceson, author of several books on politics and same-sex marriage, sees groups opposed to gay marriage "focusing less on the sin narrative and more on the danger to our religious freedom."
"They will try to carve out a movement that protects people of certain religious faiths from having to serve same-sex couples or recognize same-sex marriages," Pierceson said.
(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham and Dina Kyriakidou)