A supermajority of Americans believe parents should have the final say in what their children learn in public schools as the national debate over the role of parents in public education and the material taught to students continues.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty released its third annual Religious Freedom Index this week, which is based on responses from 1,000 Americans to questions about their views on religious liberty. Respondents’ answers to 21 questions were used to compile a “Religious Freedom Index” measuring support for religious liberty in the U.S. The Religious Freedom Index reached a high of 68 this year, compared to 67 in 2019 and 66 last year.
As part of the survey, respondents were asked to weigh in on the topic of education, specifically whether parents or school districts should have the final say on the curriculum being taught in public education. Sixty-three percent of respondents believed that “parents should have the final say … and should be able to opt-out of morally objectionable or inappropriate content,” while 37% thought that “public schools should have the final say … and parents should not be able to opt-out of morally objectionable or inappropriate content.”
The question about education comes as concerned parents have descended on school board meetings nationwide expressing opposition to the teaching of critical race theory and sexually explicit material in schools. The issue of education played a major role in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, which Republican Glenn Youngkin ultimately won.
In a debate with Youngkin, Democrat Terry McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” In recent weeks, the United States Department of Justice has faced major pushback for likening concerned parents to domestic terrorists.
The questions about education extended to higher education and the role of religious organizations, discussions and diversity on public university campuses. Support for allowing religious student groups to “have a place on public university campuses, just like other student organizations,” was measured at 63%, while letting religious groups “choose leaders that adhere to the teachings of their faith” registered at 60%.
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said they agreed that “public universities should strive to ensure philosophical and religious diversity on campus among both students and professors.”
The survey also asked questions about the coronavirus pandemic. A majority of respondents (52%) agreed that worship services should be considered essential during a pandemic compared to 48% who thought they should be considered non-essential. However, majorities of Americans thought that other religious ceremonies (52%), community service (54%) and weddings (57%) taking place at houses of worship should be considered non-essential.
A plurality of respondents (47%) agreed with the statement proclaiming that “businesses should not force their employees to take a COVID-19 vaccine if doing so would violate the employee’s religious beliefs.” Thirty-one percent said they disagreed, while 22% neither agreed nor disagreed. At the same time, 48% of respondents believed that vaccine mandates that allow for “exceptions based on medical, personal or philosophical reasons … should also allow exceptions for religious reasons.”
In 2021, 71% of respondents agreed that “religious organizations should be just as eligible to receive government funds as non-religious organizations,” an increase from the 65% who said the same in 2020. In 2021, a majority of Americans (56%) believed that religious schools should have equal access to financial assistance provided by the state to private schools as their secular counterparts.
An additional 25% thought that religious schools should have equal access only if they refrain from engaging in religious activities, while 19% said that religious schools should be excluded from such programs.
When asked if they agreed with a statement asserting that “people with religiously based opinions in controversial topic discussions should be free to voice them in public,” 30% of respondents strongly agreed, 32% somewhat agreed, 6% said they somewhat disagreed, while 9% indicated that they strongly disagreed. Eighty-one percent of respondents believed that individuals should have the ability to “express or share religious beliefs with others,” and 75% said individuals should have the right to “preach the doctrine of their faith to others.”
When asked if “professors at public universities should have the freedom to share their religious beliefs on controversial issues inside and outside of the classroom,” 44% said they should have the ability to, while 28% disagreed. Public opinion was much more split on whether professors at public universities should be able to “share their religious beliefs on sexual orientation and gender identity inside and outside the classroom.” Thirty-five percent thought professors should not be able to do so, while 34% said the opposite.
The survey also included questions about religious pluralism, asking respondents “about how different belief systems and practices can simultaneously exist in society. An overwhelming majority of respondents (90%) supported “freedom for people to choose a religion, if they wanted to,” while 10% opposed.
“Freedom to practice a religion in daily life without facing discrimination or harm from others” received the support of 88% of respondents and the opposition of 12%. Other ideas overwhelmingly supported by respondents included the “Freedom to pray or worship without fear of persecution” (82%), “tolerance and respect of a broad array of ideas and beliefs about God” (86%) and “freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs even if they are contrary to accepted majority practices” (82%).
Seventy-six percent of respondents accepted and supported the idea that people should have the ability to “run their business or private organizations according to their religious beliefs.” Seventy-one percent of those surveyed accepted and supported the idea that people should have the “freedom to believe that certain behaviors and activities are immoral and should be avoided in our society.” Examples of such behaviors included same-sex marriage, adultery, abortion and pornography.
Seventy-eight percent of respondents agreed that people should be able to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman without fear of facing “discrimination, penalties or fines from government.”
Giving religious groups and organizations the freedom to make employment and hiring decisions without government interference and to discuss political topics and endorse or oppose political candidates received 69% and 70% support, respectively.
However, support for allowing hospitals and healthcare systems run by religious organizations to “set policies and standards that reflect the organization’s religious beliefs” was supported by only 44% of respondents. On the other hand, 68% of those questioned thought that “healthcare systems and practitioners should respect patients’ religious beliefs.” Regarding healthcare workers with religious objections to abortion, 75% supported the right of such employees to not participate in abortion procedures.
When asked about the influence of religion in society, 61% of respondents saw religion as “part of the solution” to “issues and what happens in our country today.” People of faith were seen as a solution by 64% of respondents.
Sixty-five percent of respondents contended that they had at least a “good amount” of acceptance toward “people of faith in supporting their ability to believe and live according to their beliefs,” and 54% expressed at least a “good amount” of acceptance of “the contributions religion and people of faith make to our country and to our society.”
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org