clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why a federal LGBTQ nondiscrimination law will be difficult to pass, according to new research

SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults favor LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, but that doesn't mean they'll embrace current congressional efforts to add them to federal law, according to new research on LGBTQ rights.

High levels of overall support for gay, lesbian and transgender Americans mask some tension over how to treat those who, for religious reasons, object to serving members of the LGBTQ community, Public Religion Research Institute found.

"Some people who say they support these (nondiscrimination) protections … would (also) want to see religious exemptions allowed," said Maxine Najle, a senior research associate at the research institute.

Heather Tuttle

Around one-quarter (23 percent) of U.S. adults simultaneously support both laws banning sexual orientation or gender identity-based discrimination in housing, hiring and public accommodations and laws allowing business owners to turn away members of the LGBTQ community for religious reasons. Forty percent of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 29 percent of white evangelical Protestants and around one-quarter of Hindus and white Catholics support both types of laws, according to the survey.

This position puts them at odds with the Equality Act, which was introduced in the House and Senate earlier this month.

The legislation, co-sponsored by nearly 300 members of Congress, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of characteristics protected by civil rights law. But it would also prevent religious objectors to same-sex marriage from using the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to defend against discrimination claims, as the Deseret News reported.

"The Equality Act will clarify that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be misused to allow entities to discriminate and violate civil rights laws," said the Rev. Jennifer Butler, CEO of Faith in Public Life, during a March 13 press call.

Just over 4-in-10 U.S. adults (42 percent) appear to be open to the Equality Act's approach, since they support LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections while opposing religiously based service refusals. Jews, religiously unaffiliated Americans and people who identify with New Age religions are particularly likely to hold these positions, Public Religion Research Institute reported.

The survey is based on more than 40,000 bilingual phone interviews conducted throughout 2018. The margin of error is 0.5 percentage points.

One of the key takeaways of the report is that support for LGBTQ rights is high among many types of Americans and has been relatively stable since 2015, Najle said.

Majorities of Democrats (79 percent) and Republicans (56 percent), young adults (76 percent) and seniors (59 percent) support LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. More than half of all major religious groups — including 70 percent of Latter-day Saints, 71 percent of white mainline Protestants and 54 percent of white evangelical Protestants — also favor these laws, the survey showed.

These similar levels of support among "demographics that normally have very divided opinions, especially on hot-button issues, is pretty remarkable," Najle said, adding that the survey question outlined broad nondiscrimination protections that would help gays, lesbians and transgender Americans in multiple areas of life.

This broad wording is important to keep in mind when comparing support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws with support for allowing business owners to turn away same-sex couples, she noted.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., flanked by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., left, and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., right, joins fellow Democrats as they announce the introduction of The Equality Act, a comprehensive nondiscriminatio
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., flanked by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., left, and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., right, joins fellow Democrats as they announce the introduction of The Equality Act, a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill for LGBT rights, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Baldwin, an LGBT rights activist, was the first openly gay woman elected to the Senate.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

"The service refusal question was much more targeted and limited," Najle said. And yet protections for business owners were much less popular overall.

Around one-third of U.S. adults (36 percent) favor allowing religiously based service refusals, while 57 percent oppose it, the survey reported.

Despite the stronger support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, lawmakers should pay attention to Americans who care about both LGBTQ rights and religious freedom protections, said Tim Schultz, president of 1st Amendment Partnership, to the Deseret News earlier this month.

"It's really unlikely to imagine a bill that is one-sided will ever achieve … broad, bipartisan buy-in," he said.

The 23 percent of Americans who simultaneously favor LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections and religious exemptions for small business owners include Democrats, Republicans and members of all major faith groups, the survey showed.

Public Religion Research Institute's findings are unlikely to slow down the Equality Act's supporters, who want to take advantage of the Democratic majority in the house and nationwide support for LGBTQ rights. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has said passing the bill is one of her top priorities this year.

However, modest support for religious objectors to same-sex marriage is not the only obstacle awaiting these LGBTQ rights advocates. A recent FiveThirtyEight analysis showed that many Americans don't think passing new LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections is a particularly urgent issue.

"Perceptions of discrimination against gay and lesbian people have plummeted over the past few years, particularly among young people," the article noted. "Only 55 percent of Americans believe that gay and lesbian people face a lot of discrimination in the U.S., down from 68 percent in 2013."