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Survey finds growing support for religious liberty is US



John Burger - published on 11/19/21

Americans seems to be more and more open to religious voices amid controversies, and more than half support a religious right to exemption from vaccine mandate, says Becket.

There might be threats to religious liberty from legislative initiatives and government mandates, but the American people by and large are still very supportive of individuals’ and organizations’ right to pursue their faith according to their conscience.

That’s the finding of a new survey from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths.

Becket’s Religious Freedom Index, conducted since 2019, is designed to give a holistic view of changes in American attitudes on religious liberty. The questions asked in the Index cover a wide spectrum of religious liberty protections under the First Amendment. The responses to these questions statistically group into six dimensions: 1) Religious Pluralism, 2) Religion and Policy, 3) Religious Sharing, 4) Religion in Society, 5) Church and State, and 6) Religion in Action. The composite Index score is the average score of these dimensions. 

This year’s composite Index score of 68 represents an increase of two points from last year. Behind this two-point increase, respondents increased positive religious liberty views on 20 of 21 Index questions from last year and brought 15 of 21 to new highs.

One example of growing support for religious freedom is in the area of pluralism. Complete acceptance and support of the freedom for people to choose a religion increased nine points to 66%.

In addition: to practice a religion in daily life without facing discrimination or harm from others increased seven points to 60%; to pray or worship without fear of persecution increased five points to 63%; tolerance and respect of a broad array of ideas and beliefs about God increased five points to 50%; and to practice one’s religious beliefs even if they are contrary to accepted majority practices (such as not drinking alcohol, not eating pork/beef, or wearing a turban, burka, or hijab, etc.) increased four points to 45%. 

On the importance of tolerance and respect of a broad array of ideas and beliefs about God, 86% of respondents mostly or completely accepted and supported, up four points from 2020.

Other changes in Index responses suggest that Americans are becoming more accepting of people of faith in the public square. Between 2019 and 2021, the Index showed a sizable increase of people of faith reporting fewer experiences of discrimination based on faith. In 2019, 63% of respondents who are people of faith reported never or almost never experiencing discrimination based on religion. In 2021, that percentage jumped to 77%. In addition, people of faith reported higher levels of feeling accepted in society this year: 55% reported feeling completely or a good amount accepted in society, up from 45% in 2019.

Part of the solution

In an age afflicted by growing incivility in public discourse, Americans still want religious voices to take part in conversations about solutions to the problems the country faces. More and more, Americans seem to see people of faith in particular as part of the solution to those problems. Each year of the Index, more respondents have said that people of faith are part of the solution to these issues, not part of the problem. This year, 62% agree or strongly agree that people with religiously based opinions about controversial topics should be free to voice them in public.

One area where respondents still want to see more action from faith communities is racial justice. Respondents who indicated that faith was an important part of their life were asked this year and last year to rate their faith community’s response to issues of racial equality and justice. This year a greater portion of respondents rated their faith community’s response as poor and a smaller portion rated their faith community’s response as excellent.

Choice in education and vaccines

In addition to the Index questions, each year the survey includes supplemental questions to probe Americans’ views on timely or special topics. This year’s supplemental questions were about the role of religion in education, the place of religious speech in the public square, the relationship between government and faith-based organizations, and the continuing implications for religious exercise of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Public schools across the country face conflicts between parents’ and administrators’ views on what their children should learn. In these conflicts, Americans place higher priority on parents’ views than schools’ views when it comes to matters of appropriate curriculum. A majority (63%) of respondents said their opinion was reflected in the statement that parents are the primary educators of their children and should be free to opt their children out of elements of public-school curriculum that they find morally objectionable.

More Americans this year also include the ability to share religious ideas in the public square as part of their definition of religious liberty. Eighty-three percent of respondents said that the freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others is an important or absolutely essential part of religious freedom. For the first time, a majority of respondents, 52%, said that this freedom was absolutely essential, up nine points since last year.

There was a jump in the portion of respondents who said the freedom for employees to practice their faith at work by wearing religious clothing or not working on certain days of the week is an absolutely essential part of religious freedom, from 39% in 2019 and 37% in 2020 to 43% in 2021.

A high level of support for government and faith-based partnerships comes just four months after a highly publicized, unanimous Supreme Court ruling on the issue. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia ended its partnership with an over-100-year-old Catholic foster-care ministry because of the ministry’s religious belief in traditional marriage. The Supreme Court, however, ruled 9-0 that Philadelphia’s actions were unconstitutional. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they support this Supreme Court decision.

The survey took up the question of which activities are considered essential in a pandemic. Respondents were most likely to include activities at houses of worship as essential activities. Fifty-two percent of Americans said that worship at a house of worship should be considered essential, and 62% said that funerals at houses of worship should be considered essential.

On the question of exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine mandates, more Americans do than do not support vaccine mandate exemptions for religious reasons, and those who work with people of faith support religious exemptions in higher numbers.

Half of the sample was asked about vaccine mandates in employment when imposed by the employer, and the other half was asked about vaccine mandates in employment when imposed by the government. A majority of respondents, 51%, agreed that businesses should allow religious exemptions to vaccine mandates when imposed by the employer, and a plurality, 47%, supported religious exemptions when the mandate came from the government.

Whether the mandate comes from the employer or the government, a greater portion of respondents said employees shouldn’t be terminated because they choose not to be vaccinated for religious reasons.

Religious Freedom
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