New survey finds limited support for religious freedom

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Americans are conflicted over just how far religious freedom rights should extend, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

An overwhelming majority—67 percent, to be exact—do not think employers should be able to claim a religious exemption to the Obamacare mandate that the health insurance they provide should cover contraceptive services.

The mandate—among the more controversial provisions of the landmark health care law—has been the subject of a number of recent court cases. In its 2014 Hobby Lobby decision the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that for-profit employers in certain circumstances were exempt. In a similar appeal from the Little Sisters of the Poor, the high court earlier this year granted the religious order a reprieve from the millions in fines the Obama wanted to impose on it.

But on other issues the public is more divided, the Pew survey found. Forty-nine percent said wedding vendors should be forced to provide services to same-sex couples whereas 48 percent said those vendors should be able to deny service on the basis of their religious beliefs. The survey found a similar split on the question of whether transgendered individuals should have to use bathrooms matching their sex at birth or the sex with which they identify.

The survey of 4,500 Americans was released September 28.

“The U.S. public appears polarized on these debates, just as it is on many other aspects of American politics. One of the goals of the survey was to see how many Americans feel torn because they can understand where both sides are coming from on these issues. The short answer is: not many,” the report states.

On the three issues—contraceptive coverage, wedding vendors, and transgender use of bathrooms—just one-fifth of respondents said they could understand the perspective of those who disagreed with them.

Pew researchers noted that beliefs about religious freedom seemed to mirror the morality of respondents. An overwhelming majority hadno moral objections to contraception, with just 4 percent saying it’s wrong. On the question of homosexual acts, however, 35 percent of respondents expressed moral reservations.

The survey also reveals that sympathy for religious freedom rights is far lower among those who do not profess any faith.

For example, among those who say they are unaffiliated with any religious denomination or group, just 33 percent support businesses that refuse wedding services to gay couples on the basis of their beliefs.

Among those who do profess a religious identification, white evangelical Protestants were most sympathetic with such businesses, with 77 percent supporting their position. Jewish respondents were least sympathetic, with just 35 percent backing the religious exemption.