Americans support religious freedom – as long as it suits everyone

(RNS) – Perhaps one of the most important legal terms of the 21st century is “religious freedom.” As my fellow University of Cincinnati political scientist, Andrew Lewis, explains in his most recent book, “The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics”, religious conservatives began to center their legal strategy on the rights of individuals to practice their faith without fear of government repercussions.

The most notable example of this strategy was Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which two men sued a Colorado bakery owner who refused to create a cake for their wedding. The store’s defense rested on the fact that the baker held deep religious beliefs about marriage and that being asked to violate those beliefs by serving two people of the same sex would infringe on the baker’s religious freedom.

But liberal Christians do not hesitate to use the arguments of religious liberty themselves. Just weeks ago, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, Oregon, filed a lawsuit because the city passed an ordinance limiting the number of free meals each week that area organizations residential facilities could offer homeless people. The law was passed after neighbors complained about disruptions caused by St. Timothy’s Meals Ministry.


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The basis of the church’s lawsuit is that the city ordinance prohibits worshipers from practicing their religious beliefs. Like Masterpiece Cakeshop, the church argues that its actions are protected by the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment.

It turns out that support for religious freedom is popular with all Americans — as long as it doesn’t limit the other freedoms we all share.

In late 2020, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty surveyed a thousand Americans, asking a number of nuanced questions about religious liberty. The results seem to indicate that while Americans see the value of religious freedom, they believe it has limits.

Generally speaking, a majority of Americans support religious freedom, whether or not they call themselves a “person of faith.” But while nearly 40% of people of faith believe that religious freedom is too poorly protected in the United States, this opinion is shared by only 18% of people who call themselves non-religious.

At the other end of the spectrum, 20% of Americans who say they are not religious think religious freedom is overprotected. Only 7% of religious people agree with this.

As the pollsters’ questions became more nuanced, it was clear that the average American is more likely to give religious practices more leeway when they have the least impact, but more hesitant to protect beliefs. and behaviors that bother others in the community or workplace.

For example, more than 85% of Americans think it is “somewhat important” or “absolutely essential” that an American has the right to choose the religion of their choice. The same percentage believe that the right to practice one’s religion without fear of persecution is a key element of religious freedom.

But nearly 37% of people say practices that bother others are “definitely not” or “not a very important part” of religious freedom.

Painting by Ryan Burge

This disadvantage seems to include religious views on politics, especially in places of worship. Nearly 35% of respondents said religious freedom should not extend to the right of religious leaders to endorse political candidates.

It should be noted that in these cases, a majority of Americans believe that religious freedom should apply in these circumstances. There is broad support for the idea that religious organizations and individuals should have a large place in society. But those are high percentages of dissent when a religious practice gets in the way of another American.

There were also many contradictions. In a part of the survey in which Americans were asked to respond to a variety of statements about religious freedom, 3 in 5 adults agreed that religion is a fundamental part of some Americans’ identity and should be protected. . However, 42% of this same group agreed that religious beliefs are often used as an excuse for bigotry.


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Painting by Ryan Burge

Elsewhere, 56% of Americans agreed that “cutting down religious freedoms is a first step toward losing broader freedoms,” but 44% agreed that it was appropriate for the government to prevent religious groups from meeting for a period of time. pandemic or other public emergency.

Anyone who studies the opinions of Americans knows that they are often in direct contradiction to each other. They often say they want to reduce taxes and the federal deficit, for example, but also express strong support for expensive government programs and others. But the message from Becket’s poll for preachers and politicians is clear: Talking generally about religious freedom will win admirers. Just avoid telling anyone what to think of specific cases.

(Ryan Burge is assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, pastor of the American Baptist Church, and author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going”. He can be contacted on Twitter at @ryanburge. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.

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