Commentary

Religious Exemption Support Spikes...Even with Biased Survey Question

By Bill Donohue | April 16, 2020 | 9:32am EDT
Jack Phillips, owner of "Masterpiece Cakeshop" in Lakewood, Colorado speaks outside the US Supreme Court as Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is heard on December 5, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Jack Phillips, owner of "Masterpiece Cakeshop" in Lakewood, Colorado speaks outside the US Supreme Court as Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is heard on December 5, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

A new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI) on LGBT rights finds encouraging news for allowing religious exemptions. 

Most Americans, 72 percent, are opposed to discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender persons in jobs, housing, and public accommodations. More interesting is the finding that "a majority (56 percent) of Americans said they oppose allowing a small business owner in their state to refuse products or services to gay or lesbian people if providing them would violate their religious beliefs." That figure in 2016 was 61 percent. 

The CEO of PPRI, Robert P. Jones, wasn't happy with the change.

"Among conservatives and Republicans, there has been a steady drumbeat around religious liberty," he said, "and I think it has started to have some traction in the bigger national debate." 

Similarly, NBC News reported that "Several of the legal test cases around this issue—for instance, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission—revolved around the issue of same-sex marriage, and Jones said public opinion is more supportive of religious refusals in the context of marriage."

Jones is right that there has been "a steady drumbeat around religious liberty." That's because of attacks on it. In fact, had PPRI asked a more accurate question, the results would have been more supportive of religious-liberty exemptions. 

Respondents were asked if they strongly favored, favored, opposed, or strongly opposed the following: "Allowing a small business owner in your state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs." That question is too broad and does not get to the issue that drove the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling. The wording is also tendentious: most Americans instinctively oppose someone refusing to acknowledge someone else's rights.

In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 7-2, that Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker, was the victim of religious hostility by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. PPRI CEO Jones would have us believe that LGBT people were victimized when, in fact, it was the baker.

Phillips never said he would reject servicing a gay or lesbian person. That was not the issue. The issue was the request of two homosexual men who asked Phillips to custom-make a wedding cake for them. That meant he had to personally affirm their marriage, something which, on religious grounds, he could not in good conscience do. 

The PPRI survey question did not tap into the issue that was extant in the Masterpiece Cakeshop matter, and therefore misrepresented the support for religious exemptions. What if the survey had asked the following: "Should a small business owner be required by law to affirm the marriage of two people of the same sex if doing so violates his religious convictions?" Surely such a question would elicit more support for religious exemptions. 

LGBT people enjoy wide civil liberties and are rarely discriminated against in public accommodations, housing, and on the job. To be sure, there are some instances when their rights conflict with the religious rights of those who cannot in good conscience affirm their status. We need to remember that religious rights are encoded in the First Amendment and cannot be violated without a compelling reason.

To resolve this matter, we must first admit that sexual orientation and sex identity are not rationally analogous to race. The former two status groupings refer to behavior and volition; the latter is fixed by nature and has nothing to do with either behavior or choice. It is therefore removed from rational moral judgments, whereas sexual orientation and sex identity are not.

Bill Donohue is President and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization. He was awarded his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University and is the author of eight books and many articles.

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