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Becket Says… Religious Freedom Survives Culture Wars

December 2, 2019 Frontpage No Comments


Readers of this column have come across the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty numerous times during the past few years. Becket is a leading public interest legal and educational organization dedicated to protect the free expression of all faiths. It has been instrumental in numerous legal battles, including representation of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the ongoing legal battle over whether or not the nuns can be forced to provide contraceptives and abortifacients for their employees.
Late last month Becket released the results of its first religious freedom index to track trends on American views of religious freedom. It is being used to measure trends in six dimensions of religious freedom. It is anticipated that the survey will be repeated every year and subsequent indexes will be able to show the change, if any, in American views on questions of religious liberty in each of the six areas of interest. (See last week’s Wanderer, p. 3A, for a news release on this.)
“Over time, we hope the Religious Freedom Index will become an essential resource to anyone who studies attitudes about religion and religious freedom in America,” said Mark Rienzi, president and senior counsel for Becket.
This year’s index has found that despite popular opinion, support for religious freedom has broad support in the United States.
The executive summary of the report lists three key findings:
First, even after decades of religious freedom being pulled into the culture wars, Americans accept and support a broad interpretation of religious freedom: “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.”
Second, Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of the government penalizing groups and individuals for living out their religious beliefs: “Respondents overwhelmingly supported the freedom to believe and to practice beliefs free from persecution by others — 87 percent support the right to practice religion in daily life without facing discrimination…even in the controversial area of beliefs about marriage, 74 percent said individuals and groups should not face discrimination, fines, or penalties from the government for those beliefs.”
Third, contrary to popular narratives of increased tribalism and polarization, Americans support a culture of accommodation for minority faith practices: “The index shows strong support for a culture of acceptance and accommodation of minority beliefs and practices….80 percent of respondents expressed support for the freedom to practice such beliefs in general, and 74 percent supported the expression of similar practices in the workplace.”
The six areas or dimensions that the index covered, in decreasing order of support, and with some of the more interesting findings, are:
First, religious pluralism (2019 score 80) covers how Americans view basic religious rights and their ability to live out the tenets of their faith. This covers some of the most basic religious freedom issues, to believe, worship, and live without persecution. While this is the highest score among the six dimensions, one note bothered me. Twenty percent — that’s one in five — opposed the statement people should have the “freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs even if they are contrary to accepted majority practices.”
Overwhelmingly, however, respondents supported the right of an individual to choose any religion he wants, to practice it, and to be tolerant of other “ideas about God.”
Second, religious sharing (71) examines to what extent should Americans be free to share their faith and beliefs. In this section there was a break-out of belief by religion. To the proposition that people should be able to express or share their religious beliefs with others, 14 percent of Catholics somewhat oppose while 83 percent favored it. When asked the same thing about the freedom to preach the doctrine of their faith to others, 27 percent of Catholics oppose while 74 percent favor.
Third, religion and policy (67) explores what is the proper place for religion when it intersects with law and policy. It included the issue of the right of businesses and private organizations to operate according to their belief that marriage is a union of a man and a woman without facing harassment or penalties from the government. Only 57 percent of the respondents agreed with that proposition. In one of the rare instances where the index separated respondents by party, 73 percent of the Republicans agreed that business owners have that right but only 45 percent of the Democrats agreed. Democrat approval increased to 68 percent when the term “individual” was substituted for “business owners.”
Interestingly, in an area where we’ve seen a lot of litigation, notably on college campuses, 30 percent are opposed to allowing religious organizations to choose their own leaders without state interference. And 26 percent favor penalties or fines for those who “believe that marriage is the union of a man and woman.”
Fourth, religion in action (65) looks at how individuals should be able to practice their beliefs beyond the walls of their places of worship. In this dimension 76 percent believe that people or groups should have the right not to participate in actions or work that violate their religious beliefs; yet nearly one-quarter — 24 percent — oppose that right. The index found no significant difference in this issue between the adherents of the major political parties.
Additionally, by 74 to 26 percent, respondents believe that employees should be able to wear religious clothing to work, including a hijab, turban, or kippah, or to refuse to work on certain days of the week.
Fifth, religion in society (63) asks, does religion contribute to a healthy society? Fifty-nine percent of respondents say that people of faith and 56 percent say that religion is part of the solution for what ails the nation.
“Sixty-one percent of those who indicated that religious freedom needs more protection also said that religion was part of the solution to what happens in this country. On the other hand, only 38 percent of those who thought religious freedom is protected too much indicated that religion was part of the solution.”
Blacks and Hispanics were above the average of those responding that religion is part of the solution; blacks by nine points and Hispanics by 12.
Sixth, church and state (58) examines the boundaries between government and religion. Sixty-six percent of respondents say religious organizations that provide community services should be just as eligible to receive public funds while thirty-four percent are opposed. Fifty-six percent believe the state should be able to use religious symbols or language in public displays while forty-four percent oppose.
On the subject of who can become a public official, three in four agree that “public officials should not face the threat of being blocked or disqualified…for their religious beliefs.” Atheists support that proposition by sixty-nine percent. Twenty-four percent of respondents agree with the proposition “people seeking to become an elected official should be scrutinized for the religious beliefs they hold and should be disqualified or blocked from holding public office because of those beliefs. Society should not tolerate public officials who might allow their religious beliefs to influence their decisions.”
In conclusion, Becket found “evidence for broad support of robust religious freedom protection, discomfort with government interfering in religious practice, and positive attitudes toward a culture of accommodation of religious practice. No question in the Index saw less than a majority of net support or agreement with a position expressing support to protect in specific freedom.”
Becket should be commended for this effort. It will be interesting to see how the Index compares answers from year to year. In the meantime I hope that some of our politicians and judges who are less than religious friendly take note of this first index and the broad support for religious freedom that it contains.
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