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Do Gen Z’s views on religion put the future of religious freedom at risk?

The latest Religious Freedom Index from Becket reveals that Gen Z is less supportive of religious freedom than other generations.

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

New research on American support for religious freedom protections holds good news and bad news for those concerned about the plight of people of faith.

The good news is that most of the country is generally supportive of religious rights — especially when those rights ensure that members of minority groups feel safe living out their faith.

“Americans’ overwhelming concern for minority religious groups is a key takeaway of this year’s Index results,” said Montse Alvarado, COO and executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the organization behind the new Religious Freedom Index, in a press release.

The bad news is that skepticism about religious freedom has a clear source, and it’s one that will exert a growing influence over the country in years to come.

“The Gen Z numbers are really striking. ... If we’re looking into the future, threats and opportunities are coming from the fact that the younger generation seems to have less sympathy for and understanding of the value of religion in society,” said Stephanie Slade, senior editor at Reason magazine, during a launch event for the data in Washington, D.C.

The new research showed that members of Gen Z were less likely than members of other generations — often by a wide margin — to “accept and support” policies that protect the right of people of faith, including religious business owners, to hold unpopular or controversial beliefs.

For example, just one-third of Gen Z said individuals who believe marriage should only be between one man and one woman should be protected from discrimination, fines or other penalties, compared to 44% of respondents overall.

Gen Z was also less supportive of allowing business owners to refuse to provide goods and services for same-sex weddings, an issue that’s in front of the Supreme Court this term.

“There’s solid support among the public for the rights of business owners, but ... the fact that young Americans seem much less sold on the idea ... means (this debate) is not going away anytime soon,” Slade said.

She noted that, at times, Gen Z respondents seemed to contradict themselves, because they often expressed support for religious freedom protections in the abstract before balking at specific examples.

“When you put specific examples to them, like a physician opting out of being involved in an abortion, the support drops,” Slade said.

One possible explanation for these trends, panelists said, is that Gen Z is the least religious generation. Around one-third of Gen Z identifies as religiously unaffiliated, compared to 29% of millennials, 25% of Generation X and 18% of baby boomers, according to the Survey Center on American Life.

Young people who didn’t grow up attending a house of worship may not accept that controversial beliefs about marriage or abortion are rooted in religion, rather than politics or personal animus. If that’s the case, they won’t be easily convinced that religious freedom should protect a shop owner’s right to turn away some LGBTQ customers.

In the past, Americans often grew more religious as they got married, had kids and settled into adult life. But researchers doubt that trend will hold up among Gen Z, meaning that it’s unlikely that young people’s skepticism about some religious rights will resolve on its own.

Nicholas Tomaino, an assistant editorial features editor for The Wall Street Journal who spoke alongside Slade at the Washington, D.C., event, said Gen Z’s views on religious freedom will need to be changed through other means. One possible strategy would be to share more positive stories about the work of religious organizations in the media, he said.

Gen Z might also feel more positive about religious freedom after learning more about its place in the civil rights landscape, according to leaders from Becket. They recommended this kind of education for all Americans in the intro to the new report, noting that many people are confused about what the Constitution says about faith.

While 85% of respondents correctly noted that free speech is one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, just 47% remembered that it also protects religious freedom, the survey found.

“It is important that Americans not only support religious freedom but also understand its roots in our Constitution and why it is a fundamental human right,” the Becket team argued in the survey report.