What Religious People Actually Think About Using ‘Religious Liberty’ To Justify Anti-Gay Discrimination


Since January, Americans have heard a lot of claims from conservative faith leaders, talking heads, and even Republican presidential candidates that same-sex marriage is supposedly a danger to “religious liberty,” with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) going so far as to declare marriage equality one of the “greatest threats” to religious freedom in U.S. history. But according to a new poll, even religious Americans don’t think “religious liberty” should be used as an excuse to discriminate against LGBT people, with most people of faith preferring legal protection for LGBT rights.

On Thursday, researchers from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) unveiled a new survey featuring a range of data highlighting America’s rapidly shifting perceptions of LGBT people and same-sex marriage. Among its many findings, the poll reported that majorities of every major religious group now support legal nondiscrimination policies to protect LGBT people: of those surveyed, 71 percent of Catholics, 67 percent of white mainline Protestants, 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants, and 59 percent of non-white Protestants said they would back laws to shield LGBT individuals against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing.

To be sure, support for nondiscrimination policies among religious groups isn’t entirely unexpected. Even the Mormon church — which actively advocates against marriage equality — managed to strike a deal with LGBT advocates earlier this year to successfully pass legislation in Utah that provided housing and workplace protections for LGBT people. But that deal also included major exemptions for religious Utahans, and many conservative faith groups have since campaigned for “religious liberty” in Indiana and elsewhere that would allow business owners to discriminate against LGBT people simply by citing their faith.

Yet PRRI’s poll found that not only do the majority of Americans (60 percent) oppose laws that exclude LGBT people, most religious people don’t like them either. Fifty-nine percent of white mainline Protestants, 63 percent of non-white Protestants, and 64 percent of Catholics reject these kinds of exemptions, as do 73 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans. Only white evangelical Protestants endorse this new breed of “religious liberty” bills, and then only barely: just 51 percent say that a religious business owner should be able to use their faith to exclude a customer because of their sexuality.

“As national opinion has shifted toward support for LGBT rights, including among religious Americans, white evangelical Protestants are increasingly becoming an island of opposition amidst a sea of acceptance,” Robert Jones, CEO of PRRI, said in a press release accompanying the survey.

The curious outlier of white evangelicals appears rooted in their comparative unwillingness to acknowledge that LGBT people already face discrimination. Only 44 percent of white evangelicals told PRRI that gay and lesbian people endure “a lot” of discrimination, compared to 54 percent of non-white Protestants, 59 percent of white mainline Protestants, and 70 percent of Catholics who said the same. White evangelicals were slightly more willing to say that transgender people face systemic prejudice (49 percent), but still lagged behind the American populace as a whole (62 percent).

The findings reflect a trend that has become more and more evident over that past few years: that religious people actually generally champion LGBT rights, with only a few holdout groups (e.g., white evangelical Protestants) remaining staunchly opposed. Some of this support comes in direct defiance of established religious hierarchies such as U.S. Catholic bishops, who consistently oppose same-sex marriage and LGBT rights even as lay Catholics have become more supportive of marriage equality than any other American Christian group. This spiritual disagreement over LGBT acceptance has pushed many young Americans to abandon organized religion, but it has also inspired an whole new generation of progressive people of faith, many of whom are speaking out against anti-LGBT theology and citing holy scripture as their motivation for accepting people for who they are.

The survey also revealed several other peculiar shifts in how the public perceives the legal debate over marriage equality. For instance, in 2006, the majority of Americans — 56 percent — believed that the question of same-sex marriage should be answered at the national level. But according to the 2015 survey — conducted after nearly 38 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage to some degree — only 19 percent of Americans think the issue should be addressed at the national level, with 72 percent saying it should be left up to the states to decide. The survey also noted that Americans of all political and religious stripes said that the U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide later this year.