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The Supreme Court handed conservatives a narrow religious freedom victory in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

New research explains a surprising channel of support for religious freedom claims

- June 17, 2021

In a surprising unanimous decision Thursday in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the Supreme Court ruled that Philadelphia violated the First Amendment’s free exercise clause by refusing to contract with a Catholic foster care agency — Catholic Social Services — that refrained from placing children with same-sex families.

In a narrow ruling, the court deemed that the city’s actions were not neutral toward Catholic Social Services. The court decided not to rule on the larger question about the expansion of religious liberty claims, though at least three conservative justices urged the court to do so.

Conservative Christians cheered the Fulton decision, though it is a narrow victory. They have been arguing that freedom of religion should mean organizations and individuals in the United States are free to choose not to offer certain services to same-sex couples.

Opponents warn that the Fulton decision and related religious freedom claims could essentially be a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people, a group that has historically been marginalized. Most Americans also do not support those broad religious liberty arguments about refusing service to gay men and lesbians, and Democrats are especially skeptical.

My new research suggests that support for controversial religious freedom claims, such as the ones at issue in the Fulton case, would increase if they were linked to a more holistic approach to religious freedom, including protecting religious minorities such as Muslims.

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How Americans think about religious freedom exemptions

In general, when conservative Christians want to refuse service to lesbians and gay men, Americans don’t support their religious liberty claims. A recent survey asking specifically about the Catholic Social Services agency found that Americans were quite divided, with slightly more people favoring a decision for the agency’s religious freedom.

But when the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) asked a similar question in a survey about various religious freedom issues in January, more Americans were opposed to the discrimination. When it comes to broader questions of denying service, support falls. PRRI surveys, for example, showed that 75 percent of Americans think small businesses should not use their religious beliefs to deny services to gay men and lesbians.

Not surprisingly, Americans are polarized along party lines on issues of religious freedom. Republicans favor conservative Christians’ religious liberties by 20 to 25 percentage points more than Democrats.

But are those attitudes as fixed as such surveys make it appear? With other civil liberties, public opinion is often linked to the group that people think will benefit. How would Americans respond if, instead of considering conservative Christians vs. LGBTQ people, they were asked about a religious minority claiming religious freedom?

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How I conducted my research

In March 2020, I conducted a national survey of 3,100 individuals weighted to the U.S. census, using panels from the Qualtrics survey firm. In the survey, respondents read a short paragraph about a religious freedom case, based on real legal cases. Respondents were randomly assigned to read one of five scenarios. In the first, a Muslim truck driver claimed his religious freedom was violated when he was fired for refusing to deliver alcohol for religious reasons. In the second, a Christian truck driver made the same claim. In the third, a Christian cake baker claimed that his religious freedom rights protected him when he refused to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples. And in the fourth, a Muslim and a Christian both claimed that their religious freedom protected them when they refused to deliver alcohol or bake cakes, respectively. A fifth group served as the control and read no religious freedom prompts.

Respondents then filled out a survey about their support for religious freedom. One of the questions asked whether such freedom should include “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.”

In 2017 and 2018, I conducted similar experiments in which I randomly assigned people to read either a Muslim or Hindu religious freedom claim, before asking respondents about their support for religious freedom. In all these studies, I’m trying to learn whether reading about religious minorities such as Muslims boosts public support for religious freedom claims more broadly.

The short answer is yes.

Thinking about religious minorities makes Americans more likely to support religious freedom claims

When Americans read about religious minorities such as Muslims and Hindus claiming religious freedom rights, they are more likely to support religious liberty exemptions under the First Amendment, even when the question involves denying services to another historically marginalized group, gay men and lesbians. Democrats were more likely to support a small business’s refusal to serve same-sex clients after reading about a religious minority making a claim. In the 2020 survey, Republicans increased their support only when they read about both the Muslim and Christian religious freedom claims.

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Despite the different variations, there is an underlying message: Having people read about minority groups claiming religious rights boosts support for controversial religious freedom claims.

What does this mean?

My research suggests that the public is more responsive to controversial religious freedom claims when they are exposed to religious freedom arguments made by minority groups such as Muslims. When Democrats no longer think of religious freedom as solely a Christian issue, they respond more favorably.

To be sure, there are barriers to this approach. The public is generally opposed to religious freedom claims that discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, which indicates the effectiveness of the arguments against the claims. And White evangelicals report negative views toward Muslims at high levels — many say that Christians face more discrimination than Muslims do. Rather than supporting Muslims, conservative Christians have often worked to block Muslim religious freedom claims, with some advocating that Islam is a dangerous political ideology, not a religion.

If conservative Christians continue to advocate for religious liberty in a narrow sense, continuing to primarily emphasize cases like Fulton, they may lose an opportunity to win broad support for their views.

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Andrew R. Lewis is associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and a public research fellow at PRRI. He is the author of “The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).