New Survey Finds Big Majorities Favor Religious Freedom in Public and Private

By Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
HillFaith Founding Editor, Congressional Correspondent for The Epoch Times, FOIA Hall of Fame, Reaganaut, Okie/Texan.
November 26, 2019 Updated: November 27, 2019

Huge bipartisan majorities of people support “a broad interpretation of religious freedom” in American public and private life, according to a new national survey for a civil liberties think tank.

“Even after decades of religious freedom being pulled into the culture wars, Americans accept and support a broad interpretation of religious freedom,” according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, based on the results of its 2019 Index of Religious Freedom.

“Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of the government penalizing groups and individuals for living out their religious beliefs” at home and in the workplace, Becket said in a summary of the findings from a nationally representative sample of Americans who were asked 21 questions covering six major facets of religious freedom.

The new survey also found that, “contrary to popular narratives of increased tribalism and polarization, Americans support a culture of accommodation for minority faith practices.”

Becket will continue to conduct the index survey on an annual basis using the same 21 questions. The survey was designed and administered by Heart & Mind Strategies, an independent Reston, Virginia-based survey research firm.

“The Religious Freedom Index is designed to give a 30,000-foot view of changes in American attitudes on religious freedom by surveying a nationally representative sample of 1,000 American adults each October,” Becket said in a statement announcing the results of its survey.

“Rather than focus on the most hot-button issues dominating the news cycle, questions asked in the Index cover a broad spectrum of religious freedom protections under the First Amendment,” Becket said.

The six major areas of questions in the survey include religious pluralism, religion and public policy, religious sharing, religion in society, church and state, and religion in action.

The overall figure for the 2019 index calculated from all responses is 67, on a scale in which 100 indicates “robust support for the principle of religious freedom,” while zero indicates “complete opposition” to it.

But responses to specific survey questions indicate support for religious freedom is much deeper and wider than is often suggested in mainstream media, corporate advertising, and elite academic discussions.

“Across dimensions, we saw public support well above 70 percent on many issues, indicating that the concept of religious freedom maintains its place as a core American cultural value. And yet, the level of news coverage, discussion, and policy efforts surrounding religious freedom indicate that it sits at a historical inflection point,” Becket said.

The survey also found: 87 percent of respondents “support the right to practice beliefs in daily life without facing discrimination or harm from others”; 74 percent of respondents support religious freedom “when that practice takes place at work”; and 63 percent of respondents “supported the freedom to practice religion in daily life and at work, even when it creates an imposition or inconvenience for others.”

Becket noted that “with a government ever increasing in reach, it is unsurprising that some of the most significant conflicts in religious liberty have arisen because the government has imposed penalties on religious individuals for living their faith in public.”

The Becket results show a majority oppose intrusive actions aimed to privatize religious expression and practice.

“On questions across dimensions where a right is presented as a freedom from government involvement or influence, only a minority of respondents accept and support that intrusion,” Becket said.

For example, Becket said, “70 percent of respondents supported religious organizations’ ability to make their own employment and leadership decisions without government interference.”

Two-thirds of respondents said government should make religious and secular nonprofits equally eligible for tax-supported grants and contracts.

Opposition to intrusive government on religious practice also included “74 percent of Americans [who] said individuals and groups should not face discrimination, fines, or penalties from the government for their beliefs.”

Government intrusiveness is often prompted by atheist groups such as the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which opposes all public expressions of religious practice and opinion.

Most recently, for example, the FFRF warned a Texas sheriff that he shouldn’t have allowed hip-hop star and recent Christian convert Kanye West to conduct a religious service in the Harris County Jail in Houston.

In other recent actions, FFRF forced the removal of an Old Testament verse from a Kentucky public school principal’s official signature in September, and in August, the foundation ended a Michigan high school band’s long-standing playing of the National Anthem at an annual “Blessing of the Jeeps” event.

The FFRF lists 113 cases on its web site as legal victories it’s won in 2019 against public expressions of religious belief and practice.

One of the groups that often oppose FFRF is the First Liberty Institute (FLI) in Plano, Texas. Mike Berry, FLI’s chief of staff, told The Epoch Times on Nov. 26 that “Becket’s Index of Religious Freedom is yet another positive development for religious freedom.”

The survey also “confirms what First Liberty Institute has been reporting for years—despite broad, diverse support for religious freedom in America, religious hostility is on the rise and continues to be one of the greatest threats to our Constitution and the rule of law,” Berry said.

There have been significant court victories to protect religious freedom, including the case of Colorado baker Jack Phillips. He was sued by two men after he declined to decorate a cake for their wedding.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2018 in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission that “while it is unexceptional that Colorado law can protect gay persons in acquiring products and services on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public, the law must be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.

“To Phillips, his claim that using his artistic skills to make an expressive statement, a wedding endorsement in his own voice and of his own creation, has a significant First Amendment speech component and implicates his deep and sincere religious beliefs.”

Phillips, who is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), may return to the Supreme Court due to new litigation against him by gay advocacy groups.

Jeremy Tedesco, ADF’s senior counsel and vice president for U.S. advocacy, told The Epoch Times on Nov. 26 that Becket’s findings reinforce the idea that tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a pluralistic society like ours. They enable us to peacefully coexist with each other.

“This Index also reinforces that Americans rightly believe that government shouldn’t banish people from the marketplace based on their views on certain issues.”

Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
HillFaith Founding Editor, Congressional Correspondent for The Epoch Times, FOIA Hall of Fame, Reaganaut, Okie/Texan.