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Are religious-freedom conflicts linked to lack of religious affiliation?

Written by William C. Duncan

July 26, 2021

The recent Public Religion Research Institute report on demographic trends in religious affiliation contained some important insights into where Americans are in their religious beliefs. Those insights are important, in part because of what they suggest for the future of religious freedom.

In commenting on the report in a recent blog post, I noted that some religious freedom advocates worry about declining religious affiliation. The concern is that “when fewer people see religious practice as significant in their own lives, this could have larger implications: for instance, if the decline in affiliation leads people to be less concerned when others’ practices are limited by government actions.”

The PRRI report actually provides some data that might shed some light on the validity of that concern.

The report not only describes national affiliation trends, but also includes county-level data on religious affiliation. This allows for a high-level look at possible correlation between government limitations on religious practice and the percentage of a state’s population that is unaffiliated with any religious group.

A rough measure of government limitations on religious practice comes from six U.S. Supreme Court cases in the last five years involving claims that religious practice had been limited by a state or local law or practice. (The data from PRRI is provided by county, but the examination of possible correlations is usually done by state since the high-profile legal conflicts usually arise from the application of state laws.)

The Supreme Court cases and the legal conflicts involved were:

All but one of the states represented in this list are characterized by a larger number of counties with higher proportions of the religiously unaffiliated than the national average. The exception is Missouri, though this could be explained by the fact that the law precipitating conflict there was much older than the other laws involved in these states (or, in Montana’s case, the interpretation of a similar law).

This look is not scientific, merely suggestive. Nonetheless, there is an extremely strong correlation between the religious conflicts that the Supreme Court has weighed in on over the last half-decade and the presence of high proportions of the religiously unaffiliated in the states where the disputes arose.

Doubtless there are many other factors in play, but levels of religious affiliation may have a role. The causal arrow may point in different directions. Perhaps legislators in states with high levels of religiously unaffiliated citizens are responding to constituent suspicion about religious activities. Perhaps these legislators are just unlikely to recognize potential conflicts because they and their constituents are somewhat less likely to be involved in religious practices that would be affected by government action. Perhaps restrictions that impact religious practice act as a disincentive to religious affiliation.

Whatever the mix of contributing factors, it appears that the Supreme Court feels compelled to resolve conflicts arising from these states, since legislators there have not avoided the conflicts at the outset.

This observed correlation should be explored further and with more rigor. If it holds up, though, an important implication may be that religious freedom advocates should focus their efforts to secure religious accommodations via legislation in states where religious affiliation is relatively weaker. It probably also suggests that these advocates should make a strong case that religious organizations and people of faith make important contributions to the rights and well-being of all Americans, regardless of their specific beliefs.

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