Poll: 61 Percent of Americans Oppose Religious Denial of Service to LGBT People

rainbow flag over the Supreme Court

A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that a vast majority of Americans oppose allowing a small business owner in their state to refuse products or services to gay or lesbian people, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs. But this poll does not necessarily suggest Americans oppose religious freedom laws which would apply in specific instances.

More than six in ten Americans (61 percent) reject a small business' right to "refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs," PRRI reported last Friday.

When broken down by religion, almost every group opposed a right to refuse service. A whopping 87 percent of Unitarian/Universalists said so, along with 76 percent of Buddhists, 72 percent of Jewish Americans, and even 60 percent of Muslims. Not surprisingly, the unaffiliated also greatly opposed religious-based refusals, by 74 percent.

Even 61 percent of white Catholics, 52 percent of Hispanic Protestants, and 52 percent of Mormons opposed a business' right to refuse products or services. Only white evangelical Protestants supported the refusal right, and only 50 percent backed it while 42 percent opposed.

But the wording of PRRI's question itself presented a problem. Here is the question the organization asked:

Do you favor or oppose allowing a small business owner in your state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs?

This is actually a discrimination question. Can a small business blanket refuse to do business with gay or lesbian people? Most Americans say no, and American law in general prohibits discrimination of this kind.

But in many of the high-profile religious freedom cases, this kind of discrimination is not the issue. Business owners with a religious objection to homosexual marriage have been fined, censored, or forced to participate in a ceremony they believe to be a perversion of a religious ceremony. In the case of Oregon bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein, the assumed bigots gladly served LGBT people, they just objected to baking a wedding cake for a gay wedding.

The Kleins gladly sold pastries and other goods to gay and lesbian people; they just did not want to participate in a homosexual wedding, and they saw baking a wedding cake as a personal service that would have implicated them in the wedding ceremony. This is a very specific case, as most of these issues are. If the Kleins refused to bake a graduation cake for a person because they were gay or lesbian, that would be a problem. But a wedding cake has a specific meaning which they rejected on religious grounds.

This is very different from "discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," the thing most Americans oppose. A blanket question about refusing to "provide products or services" does not get to the heart of this issue.

The results of an August 2015 poll conducted by Caddell Associates painted a more specific picture. In that poll, 82 percent of voters said a photographer should have the right to decline services based on religious beliefs. Just based on this statement, someone might think this poll contradicted the PRRI results, but a closer look at the question in this earlier poll helps shed light on the situation.

The Caddell Associates poll asked a very specific question:

Suppose a Christian wedding photographer has deeply held religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage. If a same-sex couple wanted to hire that photographer for their wedding ceremony, should the photographer have the right to say no?

A vast majority of voters (82 percent) said the photographer should have the right to say no, while only 10 percent said the photographer should not have that right.

Liberals may connect the two questions asked by the PRRI and Caddell Associates polls as "discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation." But if these polls are both reliable, it seems Americans know better. A blanket refusal to serve gay people may be defensible on libertarian grounds, but most Americans see that as unacceptable and indeed it violates non-discrimination law.

But a case-specific refusal to serve a gay wedding is defensible, on the grounds of free speech and free association. If a baker or photographer is worried that serving a gay wedding will send a message that they accept homosexual marriage when in fact they have a religious objection to the practice, that business owner should have every right to refuse that specific service.

Cases like this do not involve discrimination, but the desire to live and operate business by religious convictions. Refusing to partake in a public event is defensible on the grounds of free speech and free association, but conservatives focus on the issue of religious freedom, because it seems to be the last resort to push back against a movement seemingly bent on removing freedom of association.

These freedoms are under assault like never before. Last year, the state of Massachusetts released a guidance applying transgender "accommodation" rules to churches themselves. Thankfully, the state later reversed this ruling, but that does not change the fact that it occurred. This would have violated free speech, free association, and religious freedom in one fell swoop.

There are also signs that these rights are under attack by the Left across the world. A poll of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) people in Australia found that a vast majority oppose any exemptions from participation in a homosexual wedding, including provisions which would allow churches to reject such weddings on their property and religious celebrants to refuse to officiate such weddings.

Approximately 90 percent of respondents in that poll opposed exemptions for florists, bakers, photographers, and other private businesses which normally serve weddings. Unlike the PRRI figure, this number gets closer to the key issue, and the widespread LGBTI opposition to religious-based free speech and free association in these cases is deeply concerning.

PRRI should run another poll, this time asking whether respondents think bakers, florists, and photographers should be able to refuse to serve gay weddings — but not gay people in general — if they have a religious objection to homosexual marriage. I would expect the numbers to be significantly different.