Some of the most embarrassing pictures America has ever been forced to share with the world were the rolls of newsreel footage from the early 1960s showing peaceful black students trying to get served at segregated lunch counters down South.

Spit on, burned by lit cigarettes, and doused with hot coffee by jeering patrons, these nonviolent protestors refused to back down when told the religion, cultural mores, traditions, customs, heritage and practices of the South demanded the separation of the races by color.

Most of us look back at that ugly time, with its fire hoses, snarling dogs and baton-wielding police as a time we'd sooner forget.

But it is the knowledge of what is contained in those films that makes unthinkable the idea that any business operating in the "public square" today would deny equal access to services or products based on a customer's color, gender, religion, national origin or sexual preference.

Well, the unthinkable has resurfaced in Arizona, home of the regressive, the pathetic, the intolerant and the morally skewered.

Under the guise of a bogus religious "conscience clause," the religious right is trying to twist the First Amendment of the Constitution so it ends up condoning, rather than prohibiting, actions that the document clearly abhors.

In earlier columns in The Sun, I explained the term "conscience clause" was one of those phrases invented to make something incredibly complex seem incredibly simple.

In the case of a so-called "conscience clause" in Massachusetts, for example, the alleged simple issue revolved around whether the state ought to allow certain individual pharmacists the option of opting out of their legal responsibility to fill all legal scripts from doctors without either their personal bias or their religious prejudice getting in the way.

Again, as I noted in my earlier column, assume we did indeed allow every pharmacist in Massachusetts the option to decide individually whether or not to fill a legally obtained doctor's prescription for birth-control pills based on his own personal religious beliefs.

It may seem no big deal to simply allow some individual Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant pharmacist the right to take a pass based on a sincere religious conviction that the use of any and all birth control is immoral.

But now let's say the issue the pharmacist has isn't with birth control, but rather with the dispensing of drugs created to deal with depression. Should that same pharmacist, who got a pass on dispensing birth control based on religious beliefs, now get a pass on filling a prescription for Xanax because his sincere religious teachings hold that prayer, rather than prescription drugs, is a more appropriate approach to curing depression?

Equally important, should that same pharmacist's moral and religious belief trump your right to follow the advice of your licensed psychologist, psychiatrist or internist who has concluded, rightly or wrongly, that those prescription drugs might cure you more quickly, more safely and more effectively than prayer alone?

In Arizona, the issue involving the "conscience clause" isn't about prescription drugs and pharmacists, but rather bakers, photographers and florists.

Seems the idea that same-sex couples possibly could force a religious baker, a religious photographer, or a religious florist, whose churches may abhor gay marriage and consider it a sin against God and nature, to bake them a cake; take a picture of them kissing; or create corsages and table settings to brighten their wedding day was more than that state's Legislature could accept.

Their answer?

A "conscience clause" exemption freeing all of the above merchants from any legal action for discrimination should they refuse to bake the cake, shoot the photos or sell the flowers to a same-sex couple.

But the slippery slope is not something that easily can be avoided.

Take the owner of a small mom-and-pop eatery in Tempe or Phoenix. What if their church sincerely believes it's a sin to associate with nonwhites? In the name of God, can they ban blacks from their lunch counter?

If Arizona allows this abominable "conscience clause" to stand, we may soon find out.

Michael Goldman is a paid political consultant for Democratic candidates and president of Goldman Associates in Boston.