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For most, equality trumps religious objections

In the wake of two favorable Supreme Court decisions, gay rights proponents got another boost this month with the release of "State of the First Amendment: 2013," a public opinion survey supported by the First Amendment Center.

According to the new poll, a majority of Americans (62 percent) now agrees that religiously affiliated groups receiving government funds can be required to provide health benefits to same-sex couples, even if the group has religious objections to same-sex marriage or partnerships.

Support for equal treatment of gay couples is highest among young people age 18 to 30 (68 percent) and among Americans who identify as liberal (82 percent).

But a surprising number of evangelicals (41 percent) and conservatives (44 percent) -- groups usually identified as opponents of same-sex marriage - also favor requiring religiously affiliated groups receiving tax dollars to provide health benefits to same-sex partners.

When government funds aren't involved, public support for equal treatment of gay couples drops to a slim majority.

Fifty-two percent of Americans believe that businesses providing wedding services to the public can be required by government to provide services to same-sex couples, even if the business owner has religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Here again, support for nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is highest among people under 30 (62 percent) and liberals (70 percent) and lowest among conservatives (34 percent).

Non-religious (59 percent) and Catholic (61 percent) Americans are more likely than Protestants (39 percent) to support requiring businesses to serve gay couples on the same basis as other couples.

These findings suggest that the gay civil rights movement has reached a tipping point in the United States. For a growing majority of Americans, sexual orientation is fast joining race and gender as a human trait that should not subject any person to discrimination.

For people with religious objections to homosexuality, this trend toward equal treatment for same-sex couples is seen as a threat to religious freedom.

Religiously affiliated groups, they argue, must be free to follow the teachings of their faith -- even when taxpayers fund the social services they offer.

And private business owners offering wedding services should have the right to turn away same-sex couples on grounds of religious conscience.

Proponents of same-sex marriage have acknowledged the need to guard religious freedom -- but in much more limited ways.

States that recognize same-sex marriage, for example, have re-stated in various ways the right of religious groups to define marriage according to the tenets of their faith. Under the First Amendment and various state laws, no house of worship or religious leader can be forced to marry same-sex couples or recognize same-sex marriages.

But advocates for marriage equality -- now supported by a majority of Americans -- draw the line on religious freedom when religious groups take government funds or when private businesses open their doors to the public.

When two cherished rights clash -- the right to be free from discrimination and the right to follow the dictates of religious conscience - society must make painful choices that inevitably uphold one at the expense of the other.

According to the latest numbers, most citizens now believe that our commitment to non-discrimination must trump religious objections to homosexuality in the public square of America.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Washington-based Newseum. chaynes@newseum.org