The past six weeks of political sparring over the White House’s contraception mandate have brought the issue of religious liberty-and debates about its scope and relationship to other rights-to the fore of national consciousness. Over the past month, American Catholic bishops, alongside prominent politicians (including presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich), have declared that the White House regulation which requires religiously affiliated organizations like hospitals, schools, and social service agencies to provide birth control to their employees at no cost, violates these organizations’ religious liberty.
Listening to the debates, one is often left with the impression that there are only stark binary choices. Recent polling from Public Religion Research Institute, however, shows that most Americans approach the issue in a nuanced way: They see the principle of religious liberty as important and secure, but not absolute.
There is near unanimity about the importance of religious liberty as a foundational American principle. Nearly 9-in-10 (88 percent) Americans agree that America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular.
Americans also generally see the principle as secure. The recent PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, shows that solid majorities of Americans overall (56 percent), as well as Catholics overall (57 percent), do not think religious liberty is threatened in American today.
But most Americans also make significant distinctions about religious liberty’s scope, weighing religious liberty concerns against other factors, such as whether organizations are principally religious (e.g., churches) or more loosely affiliated with a religious body (e.g., hospitals, colleges, and social service agencies), and whether or not the organization receives federal financing.
Americans clearly believe churches and other places of worship should be afforded the broadest scope with regard to religious liberty. A majority of Americans (52 percent) and a plurality (49 percent) of Catholics agree that churches and other places of worship should not be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception at no cost. However, majorities of Americans and Catholics overall do not afford this leeway to other religiously affiliated institutions such as colleges and universities, hospitals, and social service agencies. (Notably, the subgroup of white Catholics draw the lines differently and are more divided about extending this requirement to religiously affiliated organizations.)
Outside the context of the contraception debate, Americans also make similar distinctions on the issue of adoption by gay and lesbian couples. Last year, after Illinois’ civil unions law went into effect, several state-funded Catholic adoption agencies petitioned for the right to refuse to place children with same-sex couples, saying that to do so would violate their religious liberty. The state rejected their argument and moved to cancel over $30 million worth of contracts with the charities because they were not following state non-discrimination laws. Here, the issue of whether faith-based organizations receive federal funding can be crucial for understanding where in the debate Americans fall.
Here again, Americans hold nuanced views, differentiating between what should be required of religiously affiliated adoption agencies on the basis of whether or not they receive federal funding. A strong majority (63 percent) of Americans agree that religiously affiliated adoption agencies that receive federal funding should not be permitted to refuse to place children with qualified gay and lesbian couples. However, only half say the same of religiously affiliated adoption agencies that receive no federal funding.
Ironically enough, Catholics as a whole make less of a distinction on this issue than does the general public. Over 6-in-10 (63 percent) say that religiously affiliated adoption agencies that receive federal funding should not be permitted to refuse to place children with same-sex couples, while 57 percent say the same of religiously affiliated adoption agencies that do not receive federal funding. The subgroup of white Catholics, however, are more similar to Americans overall. A similarly strong majority (63 percent) agree that federally funded religiously affiliated adoption agencies should not be able to refuse to place children with qualified gay or lesbian couples, but only a slim majority (51 percent) agree that the same should be true for non-federally funded religiously affiliated adoption agencies.
Respect for religious liberty is a principle that Americans plainly embrace and mostly believe is secure in America today. But it’s also clear that Americans demarcate certain responsibilities from which religiously affiliated organizations (especially those that receive public funding) should not be exempted. The Obama administration’s recent accommodations, which allow women employed by religiously affiliated institutions to obtain no-cost birth control directly from their insurers, if their employers object, may not satisfy all critics. But they illustrate that some political agility and creativity, which dovetails with Americans’ nuanced approach to religious liberty, may prevent these rights and responsibilities from coming into sharp conflict - at least, in the eyes of the American people.