A prominent Republican had an Easter surprise for America's gay and lesbian community on Sunday.

Appearing on a weekend talk show, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum used a homophobic word to defend a new religious law in Indiana that some believe gives businesses the right to discriminate.

The law was originally designed to protect the religious views of Indiana business owners. Gay activists argued it would give those businesses the right to refuse service to gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.

After a national backlash, it was amended to include language that gives some protection on the basis of sexual orientation.

During his appearance on CBS News' Face The Nation, Santorum - who ran for US president in 2012 and may make another attempt in 2016 - backed the original bill without the changes, calling discrimination a "two-way street".

He then went on to frame the discussion around the issue of executive overreach (a familiar refrain for conservatives), asking whether it would be equally fair if the government forced a gay business to print signs saying, "God hates fags" for a client like the Westboro Baptist Church.

That Kansas-based church is openly homophobic claiming US casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for US laws which protect gays and lesbians.

Santorum - a frequent target for supporters of gay and lesbian rights - undoubtedly knew the free speech buttons he was pushing by using a homophobic slur, but activists also point out his comparison is disingenuous.

"Santorum is confusing this [debate] by asking whether a business should have to print hate speech," Stuart Gaffney, from Marriage Equality USA, told DC Dispatches. "No law requires businesses to provide that service."

Gaffney pointed to a ruling last week in which a Colorado state agency found in favour of a bakery that reportedly refused to decorate two cakes from a customer with Bible verses rejecting same-sex marriage.

Source: Al Jazeera