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Pew survey finds no middle ground in religious freedom debates
Americans don't agree on how to address tensions between religious liberty protections and nondiscrimination law. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
There's little middle ground in religious liberty debates over whether wedding-related businesses must serve same-sex couples and how transgender people should choose a public restroom, as many Americans say they don't sympathize with those who hold different views than their own, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Just over half of U.S. adults (51 percent) say transgender people should be allowed to use restrooms of the gender with which they currently identify, compared with 46 percent who say members of this community should use restrooms that correspond to their gender at birth, Pew reported.

The gap is smaller between people who think business owners with religious objections to same-sex marriage should be required to provide wedding services to gay couples (49 percent) and those who think these business owners should be able to refuse (48 percent).

"I'd classify that as a very even split," said Greg Smith, Pew's associate director of research. More than 4,500 adults participated in the survey, which has a 2.4 percentage-point margin of error.

Additionally, just 1 in 5 U.S. adults (18 percent) say they have at least some sympathy for both arguments in debates over transgender bathroom use or wedding services, Pew reported.

The polarized positions on both sides of these debates surprised Smith, who expected Americans to have a harder time writing off their opponents' views in disagreements over key social values.

"You might imagine that many Americans value religious liberty and value religious nondiscrimination," he said.

Pew's statistics paint a bleak forecast for resolving religious liberty debates over nondiscrimination laws and illustrate why compromise has been elusive in courtrooms and statehouses since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year.

Many people are giving up on balancing religious and civil rights protections and instead are committing to "their side winning the culture war," said Douglas Laycock, a renowned religious freedom scholar and professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, during a Friday presentation at the Religion News Association's annual conference.

The sympathy gap

Researchers designed the survey, which was conducted online and by mail, to allow them to look at the interplay between participants' sympathy for potential reactions to a religious liberty issue and their actual views of how best to resolve a conflict. Before asking for responses, researchers first laid out the background of a specific debate.

For example, the questions about wedding-related services were preceded by this paragraph:

"As you may know, same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. Some argue that businesses that provide wedding-related services, such as catering or flowers, should be able to refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality. Others argue that businesses that provide wedding-related services should be required to provide those services to same-sex couples just as they would to all other customers."

Participants were asked how much, if at all, they sympathized with people who hold the first view and then the second. Finally, they shared which argument came closest to their own view.

"One of the goals of the survey was to see how many Americans feel torn because they can understand where both sides are coming from on these issues. The short answer is: not many," researchers noted.

Most Americans only sympathize with people on their side of religious liberty debates, which could complicate efforts to solve disagreements over the best path forward from same-sex marriage legalization or how to ensure all people feel safe and comfortable in public restrooms.

One might work to increase understanding between the two sides by encouraging relationships between differing individuals. But Pew's survey showed that knowing gay, lesbian or transgender people doesn't make someone more likely to sympathize with both sides.

Eighteen percent of respondents who know someone who is gay or lesbian say they sympathize "a lot" or "some" with people on both sides of the wedding-related services debate, compared with 19 percent of those who do not know someone who is gay or lesbian.

Smith said he wasn't sure what to expect in terms of future legal compromises, but he did note that people's perceptions of religious freedom issues are in flux.

"I don't think we should assume that these attitudes are fixed and in place now and forevermore," he said. For example, Americans' acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage has risen dramatically over the last 15 years.

There's a "precedent for the public's view to shift on these kinds of questions," Smith added.

The polarization revealed in the Pew survey has been reflected in several state legislatures since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015. Dozens of religious liberty bills have failed, as lawmakers and gay-rights activists squared off over the competing interests of religious freedom and anti-discrimination.

Perceptions of the contraception mandate

Pew's survey also investigated another contentious religious freedom battle over the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate, which spells out which employers must provide various forms of birth control in health plans.

The mandate has generated dozens of lawsuits by religious objectors against the government and has come before the Supreme Court twice. In 2014, justices ruled 5-4 in favor of the national craft store chain Hobby Lobby, finding that corporations closely held by owners with religious objections to birth control should be exempt from the contraception mandate under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In June, justices unanimously decided to send Zubik v. Burwell back to the lower courts, urging compromise on the issue of how employees could gain access to birth control without violating the religious beliefs of their religiously affiliated employers.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults (67 percent) say employers with religious objections to birth control should be required to provide it to employees, compared with 30 percent who say faith-based employers should have an exemption to the contraception mandate, Pew reported.

The consensus disappeared, however, when researchers narrowed their analysis to those who attend church regularly. Half of those who attend religious services weekly or more (49 percent) say employers with religious objections should be required to provide contraceptive coverage and half (48 percent) say the employers should not have to comply with the mandate.

Pew's researchers also asked about the morality of birth control, as well as abortion and homosexuality. Many people said they don't view these issues through a moral lens, even if their church has taken a stance on the issue.

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans (57 percent) say using contraceptives is not a moral issue, compared with 4 percent who believe it's morally wrong and 36 percent who believe it's morally acceptable, Pew reported.

Around half of U.S. adults (45 percent) think homosexual behavior is not a moral issue, compared with 35 percent who say it's morally wrong and 17 percent who think it's morally acceptable, according to Pew.

Americans are most likely to see abortion as a moral issue, with 44 percent of U.S. adults saying it's morally wrong and 19 percent saying it's morally acceptable, the survey reported. Only 1 in 3 Americans (34 percent) think abortion is not a moral issue.
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