Consensus and Division on Religious Liberty

Consensus and Division on Religious Liberty
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According to a new study released Wednesday by Pew Research Center, the American public decisively believes that businesses should be required to provide their workers with contraceptive coverage—even if that action is contrary to the employer’s religious beliefs. Despite the two-thirds consensus on this issue, the public is evenly divided when asked whether businesses should be allowed to refuse wedding services to gay couples or require transgender people to use particular restrooms. 

Broad consensus on contraception coverage, but public more divided over wedding services for same-sex couples, bathrooms for transgender people

About half (49%) of adults in the U.S. believe that wedding related services, such as catering or flowers, should be provided to same-sex couples just as they are for heterosexual couples. But the other half (48%) say businesses should be allowed to refuse these services if the owner objects to homosexuality on religious grounds. 

We see roughly the same results on the question of bathroom use by transgender people. Half (51%) believe that people should be allowed to use the public restroom that matches the gender they identify with, while the other half (46%) believe that individuals should be required to use the restroom that corresponds to the gender of their birth. 

It should be noted that even though same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty states, there is no federal law that bans LGBT discrimination. Twenty two states include sexual orientation in their public accommodation laws and nineteen prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. Additionally, several cities and counties have enacted their own local versions of these policies. 

The overwhelming support for mandated contraception coverage appears to result from the fact that very few Americans (4%) believe that birth control is immoral. This can be contrasted with over one-third (35%) of Americans who feel that homosexual behavior is morally objectionable. The consensus on the contraception issue is so strong that even when only those who attend weekly mass are isolated within the Catholic responses, only 13% think birth control is morally wrong. Official Catholic teaching, outlined in the 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” prohibits artificial contraception.

The study did not directly ask about the types of contraceptives that some conservative Catholic and evangelical religious groups believe to cause abortions. The 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby hinged on objections to four types of birth control—two kinds of emergency contraceptive and two types of IUD—that the Pentecostal owners believe cause abortions due to possible effects after an egg has been fertilized. The question in this study simply referred to businesses providing coverage for a “wide variety of birth control options.” Additionally, the study did not differentiate between categories of employers, such as religious hospitals, schools, and charities, which were at issue in this year's Zubik v. Burwell.

Differing opinions by religious affiliation and partisanship

White evangelicals stand out as the only religious group that shows majority support for an employer's refusal to provide birth control coverage (53%) as well as strongly favors the right of businesses to refuse same-sex wedding services (77%) and requiring bathroom use for transgender people to correspond to the gender assigned at birth (69%). Most Jews and religiously unaffiliated Americans take the opposite views on these three issues while Catholics and Black Protestants occupy the middle ground. 

There is a much clearer consensus on the same-sex wedding and transgender issues among all people who attend religious services on a weekly basis. About two-thirds (63%) of this group support the right of businesses to decline service and a similar portion (60%) believe that restroom use should correspond with an individual's birth gender. 

Most of those surveyed across all groups (87%) personally know someone who is gay, but only three-in-ten know someone who identifies as transgender. The study indicates that knowing someone who is transgender correlates to support for using the restroom that matches a person's gender identity. 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of these findings is that there is relatively little middle ground on the LGBT religious liberty issues. Only 18% of respondents sympathize with the other side on both the wedding service refusal and bathroom issues. This leaves little room for conflicted feelings on these two controversies, illuminating the polarizing conflict between conservative religious liberty claims and LGBT nondiscrimination policies. Pew notes that “this pattern—few people expressing sympathy for both of these opposing perspectives—is evident across every major religious and demographic group analyzed in the survey.”

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