As tensions rise over the rights of religious business owners who oppose same-sex marriage, research shows Americans are divided over the role faith should play in professional choices.
Fifty-one percent of U.S. adults think someone’s “religious beliefs and values” shouldn’t influence their business decisions, while 48% think they should, according to newly released data from the Faith in America survey, which was conducted by The Marist Poll in partnership with the Deseret News.
Factors like partisanship, age and personal faith seemed to shape people’s response to the survey question. The shares of Republicans (68%) and Americans age 60 or older (59%) who said religion should play a role were around twice the shares of Democrats (35%) and Americans under age 30 (31%) who held the same view.
“Christians (58%) and those who practice a religion (69%) believe someone’s religion should play a role in their business decisions while 65% of those who do not practice a religion disagree,” researchers noted in the survey report.
The new data comes at a time when communities nationwide are locked in conflict over how to apply religious freedom protections in the business context. Americans don’t agree on whether owners of wedding-related businesses who have faith-based objections to same-sex marriage should be exempted from LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws and allowed to operate according to their beliefs.
The Supreme Court famously took up that question in a 2017 case called Masterpiece Cakeshop. It pitted a gay couple — Charlie Craig and David Mullins — against a Christian baker named Jack Phillips, who, for religious reasons, refused to design custom cakes for same-sex weddings.
In June 2018, the court ruled for Phillips without addressing how to balance religious freedom and LGBTQ rights. The decision instead focused on how Colorado officials had treated the baker as his discrimination case played out; justices said that even unpopular religious beliefs must be respected.
“When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires,” then-Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
In February, nearly four years after issuing that ruling, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a closely related case. In 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, which will be argued this fall, the justices will decide whether a website designer who opposes same-sex marriage can refuse to design websites for LGBTQ couples.
Graphic designer Lorie Smith “does not want to design websites for same-sex weddings, and she wants to post a message on her own website to explain that. But a Colorado law prohibits businesses that are open to the public from discriminating against gay people or announcing their intent to do so,” SCOTUSblog reported earlier this year.
As these and similar cases have worked their way through the legal system, Congress has debated broadening the list of businesses covered by federal nondiscrimination law.
In February 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act for the second time. The measure, which is supported by President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, would add LGBTQ rights protections to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and greatly expand that law’s public accommodations section.
Members of the LGBTQ community “commonly experience discrimination in securing access to public accommodations — including restaurants, senior centers, stores, places of or establishments that provide entertainment, health care facilities, shelters, government offices, youth service providers including adoption and foster care providers, and transportation,” the Equality Act reads. “This discrimination prevents the full participation of LGBTQ people in society and disrupts the free flow of commerce.”
The bill’s supporters say the Equality Act would ensure that gay and transgender Americans are treated the same as their neighbors. Its opponents, on the other hand, say the bill would force people of faith, including religious business owners, to choose between honoring their faith and entering the public square.
“It tries to push religious people back behind a locked door and say ‘Don’t come out,’” said Mary Rice Hasson, an attorney and policy expert, during a Senate Judiciary Committee on the Equality Act in March 2021.
Previous research has shown that a large majority of Americans (79%) support LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws and that just one-third (33%) believe small business owners should be able to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people.
“Majorities of almost every major religious group oppose religiously based service refusals,” Public Religion Research Institute reported in March, noting that support for religious business owners is highest among Latter-day Saints, white evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Christians.
In addition to asking about whether a generic “someone” should base their business choices on faith, the Deseret-Marist poll asked respondents whether they, personally, base most of their business decisions on faith. Just one-third of U.S. adults (32%) said they do.
The survey also revealed that few Americans turn to faith for help making shopping decisions. More than 6 in 10 (61%) said religion plays “no role at all” in their choice of what stores or businesses to visit.
Deseret’s Faith in America survey was fielded in January among 1,653 U.S. adults. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.