Study suggests anti-gay discrimination isn’t actually about ‘religious freedom’

How the researchers figured this out is fascinating in and of itself.

Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the same-sex couple that was refused a cake by Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop. CREDIT: Kevin Wolf/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign
Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the same-sex couple that was refused a cake by Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop. CREDIT: Kevin Wolf/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign

Conservatives eager to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people highlight “religious freedom” as one of their primary arguments. If a business owner like Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshops, whose case is before the Supreme Court, doesn’t want to sell a wedding cake to same-sex couples because of his religious beliefs, they argue, he shouldn’t have to. But a new study from researchers at Indiana University, Bloomington found that concern for “religious freedom” actually has very little to do with why people support such discrimination.

According to the study, published this week in Science Advances, when people are okay with refusing service to a customer because of their identity, it has very little to do with whether the refusal was motivated by religious beliefs. Instead, the individual’s own prejudices and the nature of the business doing the discriminating were more important factors. How the researchers figured this out is fascinating in and of itself.

The authors of the study conducted a massive survey in which participants were asked to respond to one of eight vignettes about a photographer who refused to photograph a couple’s wedding. The variations in these vignettes then allowed the researchers to assess what factors impacted how people responded to the discrimination. These were the three variables that made up the different vignettes:

  • The couple was either a same-sex couple (two men), or an interracial couple (a black man and a white woman).
  • The business was either a self-employed individual photographer or a photography studio at a large chain store.
  • The photographer’s reason for not approving of the couple’s marriage was either “because he is religious” or “although he is not religious.”

Whichever vignette they heard, respondents then stated whether they thought the discrimination should be allowed and explained why.

According to the results, respondents were far more likely to be okay with discrimination against the same-sex couple (53 percent) than the interracial couple (39 percent). But whether the refusal was based on religious beliefs (47 percent) or not (45 percent) didn’t really change whether they approved of the discrimination. Whether the photographer was self-employed (61 percent) or part of a corporate chain (31 percent) played a far bigger role.

CREDIT: Science Advances
CREDIT: Science Advances

The survey also asked respondents about their own beliefs regarding the kind of marriage to which they were responding, with 61 percent expressing support for same-sex marriage and 90 percent expressing support for interracial marriage. Unsurprisingly, those who opposed marriage for the kind of couple they heard about were more likely to approve of discrimination against them.

In other words, the reason tolerance for anti-gay discrimination is so high is because support for same-sex marriage is still so relatively low, even at 61 percent. The researchers even suggested that “if support for same-sex marriage were as high as that for interracial marriage, then Americans’ views on service refusal would not vary by couple type.”

Distinctions in respondents’ support for marriage still did not point to religious reasons being a significant factor in their response.

CREDIT: Science Advances
CREDIT: Science Advances

The researchers stated that they could find no subgroup that drew distinctions between religious and nonreligious reasons. For example, evangelical Christians did support refusals against both couples at at far higher rates, but religious reasons did not motivate their responses. Likewise, very few respondents actually brought up any discussion of artistic expression or freedom of speech.

A plurality of those who supported the refusal of service couched their support “in terms of individual rights and libertarianism.” Many felt the business had a “right to refuse” even if they disapproved of the refusal. “To them,” the researchers explain, “the free market will penalize discriminatory businesses to the extent that they will either eventually provide services or be put out of business.”

As lead researcher Brian Powell further explained to the Indy Star, “The word ‘anyone’ is a key word for denial of services.” Those who supported refusals said businesses should be able to deny service to “anyone”, while those who opposed refusals often said businesses should treat “everyone” the same.

The research severely undercuts the narrative put forth by anti-LGBTQ groups fighting to allow such discrimination to be legal. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Phillips and many other businesses challenging sexual orientation nondiscrimination laws, may argue in court that these business owners have a free speech or “religious freedom” legal rationale for their refusal of service. In reality, prejudice begets prejudice; people believe the discrimination should be legal for whatever reason the business owner wants to discriminate.