December 8, 2021
In a recent landmark speech at the University of Virginia, President Dallin H Oaks, a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, noted that much of our public discussion about religious freedom understandably focuses on court decisions. He went on to provide a caution: “Though such rulings are immensely important, I caution against primary reliance on judicial rulings to ultimately resolve these conflicts. What is needed is wise public policy, not a declaration of the winner in a legal contest.”
In an increasingly polarized political climate, such public policy, particularly around a highly contested issue, might seem out of reach. But recent survey data from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty provides some good news. Its Religious Freedom Index for 2021 suggests public support for religious freedom protections is strong and increasing.
The index reports on a national survey of a representative sample of U.S. adults conducted annually. The 2021 Index – the third to be issued – represents a high point in positive views of religious freedom. The sample in the study responds to 21 questions about “a wide spectrum of religious liberty protections under the First Amendment.”
The composite score for all the measures was 68, which “represents an increase of two points from last year.” In addition, “respondents increased positive religious liberty views on 20 of 21 Index questions from last year and brought 15 of 21 to new highs.”
The questions addressed three themes:
- “Americans value faith-based organizations and want the government to partner with them on fair and equal terms.”
- “Even in heated national debates, Americans want faith-based opinions and worldviews to be heard.”
- “Americans continue to value religion during the pandemic, with most saying houses of worship provide essential services.”
On the first theme, “those who said that religious organizations that provide services to help in the community should be just as eligible to receive government funds as nonreligious organizations … increased six points since last year to 71 percent.” When asked whether the government “should limit partnerships with faith-based groups to those who completely align with the government’s beliefs, or whether government should make partnership decisions based on organizations’ results, even when beliefs of the faith-based organization and the government may be at odds,” 65% of those surveyed agreed with the latter position.
On the second issue, “62 percent of respondents agree or strongly agree that people with religiously based opinions on controversial topics should be free to voice them in public.” A majority of respondents who said “faith was personally important” to them agreed with this statement, as could be expected, but a majority of those who said faith was not personally important to them did as well.
On the third theme, related to public health restrictions during a pandemic, 52% of survey respondents “said that worship at a house of worship should be considered essential, and 62 percent said that funerals at houses of worship should be considered essential.” Comparing different types of activities, “[m]ore than 40 percent of Americans considered weddings, community service, and other religious ceremonies at houses of worship as essential. Meanwhile, fewer than 40 percent considered graduations, protests, celebrations, exercise, sporting events, or concerts/performances at venues other than houses of worship as essential.”
Some other interesting findings from the index include:
- 2021 saw a significant increase in the number of people “who said they appreciate the contributions of religion and people of faith completely or a good amount.”
- “Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that people of faith are part of the solution” to “the problems our country faces.”
- “Eighty-three percent of respondents said that the freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others is an important or absolutely essential part of religious freedom.”
- “When administrators’ or educators’ views of what should be part of public school curriculum conflict with parents’ views, respondents think parents’ views should have the final say. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) said that parents are the primary educators of their children and should be free to opt their children out of elements of public school curricula that they find morally objectionable.”
- “On the question of exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine mandates, more Americans do than do not support vaccine mandate exemptions for religious reasons, and those who work with people of faith support religious exemptions in higher numbers.”
The widespread support for religious freedom is very encouraging. It may be surprising given the tone of many media discussions of the issue, but those discussions may reflect news organizations’ editorial positions or marketing strategies rather than public opinion. If government representatives are responsive to the views of their constituents, the Becket Religious Freedom Index suggests that real progress towards the ideal President Oaks described is definitely possible.
The teachings and practices of religious groups and people of faith have powerful, wide-ranging benefits for society. A wider understanding of this could strengthen the nation’s commitment to religious freedom protections.
As the Civil War drew to a close, the U.S. Congress returned to the issues the court had botched and began the process of addressing the underlying injustices that had given rise to the war. In the post-war years, Congress would propose three amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The decision won’t settle the abortion issue, but it provides direction to courts that might be tempted to undermine the constitutional separation between state and federal courts.