MAINTAINING THE FACADE…. It was a surprise this week to see leading conservatives take a firm position: if President Obama nominates a gay Supreme Court justice, they won’t object on the grounds of sexual orientation. Greg Sargent had this encouraging item yesterday:

In a move that will surprise gay activists and liberals, a spokesperson for Focus on the Family, a top religious right group, tells me that his organization has no problem with GOP Senator Jeff Sessions’ claim today that he’s open to a Supreme Court nominee with “gay tendencies.”

The spokesperson confirms the group won’t oppose a gay SCOTUS nominee over sexual orientation.

“We agree with Senator Sessions,” Bruce Hausknecht, a spokesperson for Focus on the Family, which was founded by top religious right figure James Dobson, told me a few minutes ago. “The issue is not their sexual orientation. It’s whether they are a good judge or not.”

Their sexual orientation “should never come up,” he continued. “It’s not even pertinent to the equation.”

That is, to be sure, an encouraging thing for the Focus spokesperson to say. I’m just not sure if he means it.

At this point, given the general public discomfort with outright, unambiguous bigotry, most conservatives are reluctant to say, “I care more about sexual orientation than a judge’s qualifications. No gays need apply.” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Republicans’ Chief Deputy Whip, went this far the other day, and he sounded ridiculous.

With this in mind, I think Focus and Sessions are concerned about appearances, and are taking the line that will make them sound reasonable. If the president does nominate a gay jurist for the court, however, I suspect it will help fuel the right’s opposition.

I’d love to think leading conservatives like these have matured and are willing to consider a person on the merits. But if that were the case, Focus’ position on gays in the military would be, “The issue is not their sexual orientation, which should never come up. It’s whether they are a good soldier or not.”

Update: This morning, Sessions’ new-found respect was already on the wane. He told Fox News a gay justice would be “a big concern” that might make Americans “feel uneasy.”

Second Update: The Family Research Council has a similar line, saying it would oppose a gay justice if he/she has a “pro-gay ideology.”

The shift here is interesting. Greg noted that FRC used to oppose gay judicial nominees outright, and that’s true. The real shift, then, is the right’s perception that it needs to be cautious about anti-gay bigotry. That’s a real change.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.