Jun 9, 2014

What 'religious liberty' means to Americans

A majority of Americans believe that religious liberty is being threatened, a new poll shows, but they also believe that religiously affiliated institutions and small businesses with religious owners should be required to provide birth control for their employees.

Americans care about religious liberty. But they don't believe corporations have religious rights.

The Supreme Court is currently considering a ruling on whether or not closely held corporations with religious owners and articles of incorporation that name a religious mission has religious rights, legally, which the law should protect. The craft store Hobby Lobby has become the face of this argument, after its owners refused to comply with an Obamacare mandate that employee health care coverage include birth control. Hobby Lobby's owners object to some forms of birth control. They claim it is a violation of their religious beliefs to assist someone in getting access to that birth control.

The legal battle has attracted some attention. Religious conservatives have rallied around the cause of religious liberty.

Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called for prayer when the Supreme Court heard the case, which he said was not just about one craft supply store. Moore said that behind the legal battle "is the larger question of what it means for the Constitution to guarantee the free exercise of religion. And behind that is the even larger question of soul freedom for all."

George O. Wood, head of the Assemblies of God, recently said the Hobby Lobby was probably the "single most important case on religious liberty that we'll experience in a lifetime."

There's some reason to think that the court's ruling will actually be fairly narrow and limited. It might not be the landmark case that people were thinking it would be. Regardless, it has brought this issue of religious liberty and the question of what that means to the fore of the culture wars. Hobby Lobby has made "religious liberty" a buzz word. It's something that people, especially religious conservatives, are talking about and concerned about.

In fact: a Public Religion Research Institute poll done last month found that 54 percent of Americans believe that the rights of religious liberty are being threatened today.

But it also found that when they say that, they're not talking about Hobby Lobby. The majority of Americans would decide against the craft store, the poll found.

The details:
  • 52 percent think religiously affiliated colleges and universities should be required to provide employees with health care plans that cover birth control.
  • 56 percent think religiously affiliated hospitals should be required to provide employees with health care plans that cover birth control.
  • 51 percent think privately owned businesses should be required to provide employees with health care plans that cover birth control.
  • 57 percent think privately owned corporations should.
  • 61 percent think publicly owned corporations should.
When it cam to the question of whether or not businesses had the right to refuse service for religious reasons, the poll found that Americans were even more decided:
  • 80 percent said small businesses should not have the religious right to refuse service to someone who is gay.
  • 87 percent said small businesses should not have the religious right to refuse service to someone who is black.
  • 81 percent said small businesses should not have the religious right to refuse service to someone who is atheist.
  • 85 percent said small businesses should not have the religious right to refuse service to someone who is Jewish.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sees trouble in these statistics, even though the majority agrees with them on these issues. The group highlights the 10 percent that said racial discrimination should be allowed, if it's religious racial discrimination. They described the poll as "like a dispatch from the Jim Crow era." A more balanced reading of the polls is that, while a minority thinks discrimination should be a legally protected religious exercise, most Americans don't accept that.

What the poll shows, further, is that while the majority of Americans are concerned about "religious liberty," they don't mean everything that goes under that name in public debates. They don't mean Hobby Lobby. They don't mean businesses, generally. Religious freedom isn't about corporations right to not do things for their employees or customers.

What the majority of Americans do mean, when they say they're worried about religious freedom, is religious practice in the public sphere. In the same poll, nearly a third of Americans said they were concerned that religion is being removed from public places.

Support for prayer at the opening of government meetings was overwhelming: 77 percent said they supported opening a town hall meeting with a prayer. Even the religiously unaffiliated -- the so-called "nones" -- agreed. Nearly 60 percent of those without a religious self-identification said they thought it was a good idea to have prayer at government meetings.

The Supreme Court ruled last month on the case of Town of Greece vs. Galloway. The court held that sectarian prayers at a city council meeting do not serve to establish a religion, do not discriminate against minority faiths, and are constitutionally acceptable.

The ruling on corporations' religious rights could come later this month.