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Constitution creates a Christian nation, 55% of those polled say

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Most Americans say the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation, and fewer people than before say freedom to worship applies to religious groups that most people consider extreme, a poll out Wednesday found.

The annual survey measuring attitudes toward freedom of religion, speech and the press found that 55 percent say erroneously that the founders wrote Christianity into the Constitution. In the survey, which is conducted by the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan educational group, three of four people who identify themselves as evangelical or Republican say the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. About half of Democrats and independents do.

Most respondents, 58 percent, say public school teachers should be allowed to lead prayers — up from 2005, when 52 percent said that.

That is "more disturbing" than the view that the nation's founders intended the United States to be Christian, says Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. The Constitution "clearly established a secular nation where people of all faiths or no faith are protected to practice their religion or no religion without governmental interference," he says.

Haynes says the findings are particularly troubling in a week when the top diplomat in Iraq reported on progress toward achieving democracy there.

"Americans are dying to create a secular democracy in Iraq, and simultaneously a growing number of people want to see a Christian state" here, Haynes says.

The "scariest" number, in Haynes' opinion, is that only 56 percent agree that freedom of religion applies to all groups "regardless of how extreme their beliefs are." That's down from 72 percent in 2000. More than one in four say constitutional protection of religion does not apply to "extreme" groups.

Haynes says many Americans consider Islam extreme, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks. He says Roman Catholics were viewed that way in the 19th century and some people still consider members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "on the fringe."

"We are seeing the product of years of not teaching the First Amendment at a young age," says Gene Policinski, the center's executive director. "People are applying their own values ... rather than educated knowledge" about the Constitution.

Still, he says, support for constitutional freedoms has rebounded from a low the year after 9/11, when 49 percent said the First Amendment "goes too far in the rights it guarantees." Now, 25 percent agree.