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Study finds religious freedom is an area of unity in a divided America

While the country is polarized on many levels, Becket’s second annual Religious Freedom Index finds that most Americans agree on First Amendment issues

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In a year that has seen Americans polarized on a number of issues — the election, racial justice, how to best handle the pandemic — a new study shows one area of agreement.

The second annual Religious Freedom Index — released Tuesday by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — finds that most Americans are broadly supportive of a wide array of religious freedoms. The study shows that, for a majority of Americans (60%), faith and religion are an essential component of identity — which helps explain why both Republicans and Democrats are widely supportive of religious freedom.

The study reminds “how ingrained religion and religious freedom are to American culture” says Caleb Lyman, director of research and analytics at Becket, a public interest law firm that defends “the freedom of religion of people of all faiths.”

This year’s survey also looked at how Americans are using faith to cope amid the COVID-19 outbreak. A majority of respondents said that “faith or religion was important to them during the outbreak.” Surprisingly, this was particularly important to both the elderly and the young — two groups that differed on other measures.

“Both respondents over age 65 and younger respondents from Gen Z were more likely than the general population to say that their religion and faith had been of special importance during the pandemic,” Becket reports.

The report also pointed toward some lack of faith in the government: Amid the pandemic, Americans feel that religion has provided the same amount of stability as government and, in some instances, more. Respondents also say that appointed officials, like judges, are doing a better job of protecting religious freedom than elected officials, like members of Congress.

But, despite widespread public support for religious freedom, other research has found government policies can conflict with those constitutional rights.

Where Democrats and Republicans agree

The index is based on the online responses of 1,000 American adults across the country. A representative sample of the population is built using census data as a demographic guide. This year’s survey took place in September and October and was conducted by Heart+Mind Strategies. The survey offered the same questions as the previous year — in the exact same order and using the same wording — to gauge changes in attitudes about religious freedom.

This year’s poll also included additional questions about “the role of faith in coping with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, evaluations of faith communities’ roles in advocating for racial justice, and the importance of a candidate’s stance on religious liberty in voting decisions,” according to Becket’s report.

Respondents did not give simple “yes” or “no” answers to the questions. Instead, they chose from a range of answers with “extremely important” sitting on one side of the spectrum and “not at all” on the other. For some questions, respondents were able to write in responses — those written answers, Becket says, will be available on the Association of Religion Data Archives in the near future.

Researchers coded the answers and compiled statistics accordingly, resulting in values between 0 to 100, with 0 being “complete opposition to religious liberty,” according to the report, and “100 indicates robust support for religious liberty.” Questions were grouped into six categories: religious pluralism, religious sharing, religion and policy, religion in action, religion in society, and church and state.

This scale, analysts with Becket say, will enable the organization to detect subtle shifts in the data from year to year.

Americans’ support ranked highest for questions under the religious pluralism category with a score of 77, although that category also showed the sharpest drop from a 2019 score of 80. The category with lowest score was church and state at 56.

The Religious Freedom Index also assigns an overall index score. Last year it was 67. This year, it’s 66, indicating that Americans remain broadly supportive of religious freedom, just as they were in 2019.

“A score of 66 represents a positive attitude — not neutral — in regards to religious freedom,” explains Dee Allsop, managing partner and CEO of Hearts+Minds Strategies.

While majorities of both Republicans and Democrats supported most of the freedoms Becket polled, there were some differences. “In the 2019 Index, 66% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans supported freedom to practice one’s religion in daily life or at work even if it creates an imposition or inconvenience for others. This year 61% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans supported this freedom,” the report states.

Becket notes that there were some other areas where Democrats’ scores dropped while Republicans’ scores rose, including “the freedom for people to choose a religion, freedom to practice religion in daily life without facing discrimination or harm from others, and allowing religious organizations to receive government funding on equal grounds with non-religious organizations.”

But the index showed that when it came to weighing the importance of religion “to providing stability to society, Democrats and Republicans were virtually identical.”

Some 33% of respondents felt that both religion and government have provided equal amounts of stability throughout the pandemic, with 31% of respondents saying that religion, has provided more stability than the government in this same period. Becket notes that “21% think government is a greater source of stability.”

Three-fifths of respondents also felt that “religion and people of faith” are “part of the solution” to the wide variety of ongoing issues society faces. Affirmative responses to this answer were up slightly in 2020 as compared with 2019, even among demographics that ranked relatively low on this measure last year — suggesting that people are feeling more positive about faith in these difficult times.

And, for most Americans, faith is not merely “an activity” but a core component of one’s identity — an issue that was addressed specifically by the survey itself. “Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed with a description of religious faith as a way of life for many people. Sixty percent agree that religion for some people is a fundamental part of ‘who I am’ and should be protected accordingly,” the 2020 report states.

Pastors and politicians alike

The survey included additional questions about the pandemic, racial justice and elections.

Data suggest that more than three-quarters of Americans feel that reopening houses of worship should take the same or greater priority as reopening businesses. According to Becket, 57% of respondents said that reopening businesses and houses of worship should take equal priority. An additional 22% said that houses of worship should have a “somewhat higher” or “much higher” priority for reopening.

Many indicated disappointment with the way religious leaders have handled issues of racial justice and felt that they should be doing more: “More than four out of five respondents who said faith was important also think that religious organizations should have a role in advocating for racial equality and justice,” the report says. “However, less than half said that their faith community had done a good job of responding to these same issues. Furthermore, of the total sample only 36% of respondents said that religion had a positive influence and made significant contributions toward equality and justice for racial minorities.”

In the political arena, religious freedom is more important to voters than those who are not registered to vote, Becket found. Paradoxically, when it came to selecting political candidates, a candidate’s stance on religious freedom was more influential than the voters’ own faith.

Respondents feel that courts are doing the best job protecting their religious freedoms while elected officials — Congress, in particular — are faring the worst.

To religious leaders and politicians alike, Becket says, the findings from this year’s Religious Freedom Index offers a lesson: “In religious groups dealing with issues of racial justice and elected officials protecting religious freedom, there exists a clear opportunity for leaders to engage and address this desire for increased attention and action.”

‘Moderate’ restrictions on religion

Respondents’ assessment that the courts are doing the most to protect religious freedom is supported by the findings of Pew Research Center’s latest assessment that Americans face “moderate” governmental restrictions on religion.

In 2018, Pew found the U.S. government imposed “moderate” restrictions on religious freedom. Lead researcher Samirah Majumdar cites religious groups filing several lawsuits under the federal Religion Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

“Lawsuits have included complaints by religious groups denied zoning permits to build or expand places of worship,” Majumdar explains. “RLUIPA cases also cover people in prison who face restrictions in practicing their religion.”

According to Pew, government restrictions in 2018 included, but were not limited to:

  • A 2018 lawsuit brought by Ramapough Mountain Indians alleging that the Township of Mahwah, New Jersey, interfered with religious assembly on property the tribe owns and was a violation of RLUIPA.
  • A July 2018 investigation into the City of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, opened by the U.S. Department of Justice after the city did not give a zoning permit for a church in a business district, but “allowed other nonreligious assemblies to locate in the same district.” The investigation was closed in November after the city “modified its zoning code to treat places of worship the same as nonreligious assemblies.”
  • A July 2018 Statement of Interest filed by the DOJ that a decision by Howard County, Maryland, to deny a Hindu association’s zoning application to build a temple in the country was a violation of RLUIPA.
  • An August 2018 ruling by the U.S. District Court in Kansas that a Roman Catholic church had presented “sufficient evidence to proceed to trial on its claim that the City of Mission Woods violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), when it denied the church a permit to expand.”
  • A December 2018 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey that “a Muslim congregation alleging that it was improperly denied septic permits and a certificate of occupancy to build a mosque could bring a claim under RLUIPA.”
  • A June 2018 decision by the Supreme Court that upheld a 2017 executive order that banned travel to the United States from a group of Muslim-majority countries and North Korea. This decision along with other orders during the year reduced the number of refugees who were admitted into the country for resettlement. According to Freedom House, “these reductions were accompanied by precipitous drops in both the number and percentage of admitted refugees who are Muslim; admissions of Middle Eastern Christian refugees also declined dramatically, even as the proportion of accepted refugees who are European rapidly increased.”