Most Americans Don't Support Religious Liberty Rights for Christian Business Owners, Poll Claims

The majority of Americans who identify as religious say they favor allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry and oppose policies that would give business owners the right to refuse services to same-sex wedding ceremonies, according to data compiled by the Public Religion Research Institute.

(Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)John Sullivan (L) and Chris McCary, both from Anniston, Alabama, walk away from the Provincetown, Massachusetts Town Hall with their marriage license May 17, 2004. They were the first in line to file for a license and were married later in the day. In November 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts must allow same-sex couples to marry beginning May 17, 2004.
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Last Friday, the Washington, D.C.-based polling firm released a new analysis drawn from interviews with 40,509 Americans throughout 2016 for PRRI's American Values Atlas.

The data, which has an error margin of less than 1 percentage point, finds that the majority of only three religious demographics — white evangelical Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses — said they oppose "allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally."

While 58 percent of Americans said they support same-sex marriage, 61 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 55 percent of Mormons and 53 percent of Jehovah's Witnesses signaled that they oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage, which happened in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage, making it legal nationwide.

By comparison, only 28 percent of white Mainline Protestants and white Catholics, 25 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 30 percent of Orthodox Christians said they oppose allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry.

(Screengrab: PRRI)

Meanwhile, 63 percent of white Mainline Protestants and white Catholics, 62 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 59 percent of Orthodox Christians said they support gay marriage. 

Jews were predominantly in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to marry, as 73 percent of Jewish respondents said they favor a right to same-sex marriage.

As 94 percent of Unitarian/Universalists, 85 percent of Buddhists, 78 percent of the religiously unaffiliated and 67 percent of Hindus said they favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, certain religious demographics were a bit more divided in their responses.

The breakdown of African-American Protestants shows that they were evenly split with 45 percent who oppose and 45 percent who support same-sex marriage.

Hispanic Protestants are more likely to oppose a right to same sex marriage, as 46 percent of them said they oppose and 41 percent of said they favored the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Muslim respondents were also split, with 44 percent saying they favor the right for gays and lesbians to marry and 41 percent saying they oppose.

"[M]any Americans in religious traditions that affirm only the union of man and woman as marriage have accepted legalized same sex marriage. They have acceded to the largely secular notion that societal and legal affirmation of a sexual and domestic arrangement is an intrinsic human right," Mark Tooley, president of the D.C.-based think tank Institute on Religion & Democracy, told The Christian Post on Wednesday.

"They are not very informed, even by their religious institutions, about why nearly all of humanity has privileged male-female marriage to the exclusion of other sexual arrangements," said Tooley, who's a Methodist. "They might answer differently if they better understood that male-female marriage best protects children, protects families, protects women and men, and ideally places prudent boundaries on sexuality."

Tooley added that the responses in the PRRI data set come as secular society now "stigmatizes any perceived disapproval of same-sex marriage."

"Male-female marriage is rooted in history and natural law and does not depend on religious teaching, although nearly all historic religions, especially monotheism, privilege it above other unions and arrangements," Tooley asserted.

PRRI's findings are similar to the findings of a 2015 Pew Research analysis that drew data from Pew's 2014 Religious Landscape Study, which polled over 35,000 American adults.

The research found that 54 percent of all Christians surveyed agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society. Over half of all Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Orthodox Christians and African-American Protestant respondents said they believe that homosexuality should be accepted in society, while only 36 percent of evangelical Protestants, 36 percent of Mormons and 16 percent of Jehovah's Witnesses agreed.

As reports have indicated in the last week that President Donald Trump is considering a possible "religious freedom order" that conservative religious freedom advocates say could do many things to protect the rights of religious institutions and federal contractors to operate their organizations in accordance with their beliefs, the PRRI data also shows that most American religious demographics oppose allowing businesses to refuse services for same-sex wedding ceremonies based on religious objections.

In recent years, small business owners across the U.S. were fined, sued and punished over their refusal to provide services for same-sex weddings because their participation would violate their religious beliefs. Advocates have called for state governments to give these religious business owners accommodations to non-discrimination laws, while opponents claim such exemptions would give these businesses a license to discriminate.

(Screengrab: PRRI)

In all, only 61 percent of Americans said they oppose allowing "small business owners in your state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people if doing so violates their religious beliefs."

The data shows that white evangelical Protestants are the only religious group that does not have a majority that opposes allowing businesses to refuse services on religious grounds.

Fifty percent of white evangelicals said they support giving business owners the right to refuse services or products on the basis of religious beliefs. Forty-two percent of white evangelicals said they oppose allowing businesses to refuse services.

Fifty-two percent of Mormons and Hispanic Protestants, 53 percent of Jehovah's Witnesses, 58 percent of Orthodox Christians, 60 percent of Muslims, 61 percent of white Catholics, 62 percent of white Mainline Protestants, 63 percent of Hispanic Catholics and Hindus, 66 percent of African-American Protestants, 72 percent of Jews and 87 percent of Unitarian/Universalists said they oppose giving business owners the right to refuse services or products on the basis of religious objection.

However, Tooley argues that the PRRI's question on religious-based refusal "shows tremendous bias by framing the question around denial of goods and services to persons, which is not the presenting issue."

The issue for many of the business owners that have been fined and sued in the last couple of years is not that they wouldn't serve gays and lesbians, it is that they believe it would violate their conscience to provide their services for same-sex wedding ceremonies.

"A more even-handed question would have asked if businesses and persons must, by law, be compelled to actively participate in specific ceremonies and events that violate conscience," Tooley told CP. "Should a gay business owner, for example, be compelled to actively cater to and participate in a Muslim conference condemning homosexual behavior? A more fairly phrased question would have gotten different answers."

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