Support for religious freedom up among Americans; majority consider worship ‘essential,’ survey says

Jonah McKeown   By Jonah McKeown for CNA


Flag and cross. / Amanda Wayne/Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Nov 17, 2021 / 14:34 pm (CNA).

A legal group known for representing religious believers in court announced this week that support for the “principles of religious freedom” among U.S. adults reached a three-year high in 2021, based on a new survey and analysis by the group.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, based in Washington D.C., released their third annual Religious Freedom Index report Nov. 17, which aims to serve as a comprehensive study of Americans’ perspectives and views on religious freedom.

Becket says their research shows that a majority of Americans think worship and funerals at houses of worship should be considered essential activities in a pandemic. The report found that among the various demographic groups they surveyed, the people most likely to rate religious activities as “essential” were Republicans, Generation X, and Black and Hispanic people.

Becket says their analysis of the survey data demonstrates that support for religious freedom has reached a three year high, based on a “composite” score devised by the group.

“Support for religious liberty in America in 2021 is alive and well,” the report reads.

“This year’s Index showed the highest overall composite score of any year…After a tumultuous 2020, when the Index saw a small but consistent dip in support, this return to 2019 levels—and in some cases, record highs—is a welcome observation.”

The survey, which used a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adults, included 21 questions carried over from last year, plus 50 additional questions about more timely topics, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The 21 “Index” questions examined six categories of American thought on religious liberty: Religious Pluralism, Religion and Policy, Religious Sharing, Religion in Society, Church and State, and Religion in Action.

The group calculated a composite score of overall support for religious freedom using the “Index” questions, which this year was 68 out of a possible 100, up from 66 in 2020.

Americans value faith-based organizations, the report concludes, and want the government to partner with them on fair and equal terms. The data also show that a majority of Americans think that people with religious opinions on controversial topics should be free to voice them in public.

“The majority of respondents also support viewpoint diversity on college campuses, as well as parents’ rights as the primary educators of their children,” the report reads.

“There are tensions with religious pluralism, however. While Americans support broad expressive religious freedoms in principle, they are less comfortable with certain real-world applications of this freedom, especially in circumstances relating to sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The report also concludes that more familiarity with religion and people of faith seems to increase support for religious freedom in certain situations, with respondents who said they had coworkers who were people of faith reporting “much higher levels of comfort” when discussing religious topics at work.

Those who worked with people of faith were also more supportive of religious exemptions to vaccine mandates, Becket said.

In the inaugural year of the Index, 2019, the report found strong opposition among respondents to the government taking adverse action against people or organizations for their free exercise of religion. Certain racial minorities— African-Americans and Hispanics— were more likely than other respondents to view religion as “part of the solution” in society.

In 2020, Becket concluded that Americans believe places of worship should not be subject to harsher coronavirus regulations than businesses. The “composite” score showing overall support for religious freedom dipped slightly as compared to 2019.

“A pandemic, an election year, and social unrest no doubt contributed to last year’s dip in support for religious liberty,” the 2021 report concludes.

“This year’s Index findings bring us to overall higher levels of support and are encouraging, especially as we see more people of faith reporting higher levels of acceptance in society and lower rates of religiously based discrimination. Next year’s Index findings will show whether this high support for religious liberty increases.”

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