Religious liberty survey and inclusion of minority faiths

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Sean McShee and Manny Tejeda-Moreno both contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON – In early November, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty published the “2019 Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment.” Becket conducts the survey yearly from mid-September and mid-October and plans to conduct this survey yearly. About 1,000 individuals are randomly selected for inclusion in the study.

The Becket Fund states as its mission “Becket exists to defend the free exercise of all faiths, from Anglican to Zoroastrian” and describes itself as “a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths.” It has, for example, defended Santeros, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, and Native Americans.

For example, Becket filed an amicus brief, supporting the case of Dr. Scott Warren who is part of a humanitarian ministry that leaves food and supplies for undocumented immigrants. The US government charged Dr. Warren with “Abandonment of Property” in part to block his assistance to undocumented migrants. A jury disagreed with the government’s argument.

The Basic Findings

Becket assumes that a natural religious impulse exists in humans that drive religious expression in culture. Becket, an advocacy organization, seeks to support this assumption using social science methods and advance its issues. Becket does not explain how atheism or non-theism can arise despite this impulse. Becket, however, does advance these principles in three areas: 1) the court of law, 2) the court of public opinion, and 3) the academy. And the study looked to better understand these assumptions about society and religion.

The Religious Freedom Index study basically found broad support for religious pluralism in its sample. The study reports that “Even after decades of religious freedom being pulled into the culture wars, Americans accept and support a broad interpretation of religious freedom.”

The study also found that, generally, there was broad acceptance for a culture of accommodation. The study notes “Contrary to popular narratives of increased tribalism and polarization, Americans support a culture of accommodation for minority faith practices.“

The third major finding of the study is an overwhelming preference for “Hands-off government” in the sample. 87% of the sample supported the “right to practice beliefs in daily life without facing discrimination or harm from others.”

A Deeper Dive

While the findings of the study are generally supportive of religious freedom, the structure of the study might not support the level of inclusivity suggested by it, especially when it comes to the minority faiths found in Paganism. The study did address faiths such a Sikhism and Buddhism for example, and non-Christians accounted for 29% of the sample with 11% being other and 4% being atheist. No faith that is broadly within Paganism was sampled exclusively.

But some members of minority faiths might find elements of the study troubling. 81% of the sample supported the “Freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others” and 73% supported the “Freedom of individuals to preach the doctrine of their faith to others.”

The study was also funded by partners who may be invested in the results. The Acknowledgements state that, “This survey and analysis is made possible through the Templeton Religion Trust, the Our Sunday Visitor Foundation, the Maclellan Foundation and the many supporters of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s defense of religious freedom for all.”

The Templeton Religious Trust supports progress in the study of religion and society. Our Sunday Visitor, however, has a more detailed agenda stated in its mission to support “The legacy of Archbishop John Francis Noll, the organization was founded by a $1 investment in 1912 and began a lifelong apostolate to educate the Catholic laity in the faith and help them be prepared to defend the Church from its many critics.” And the Maclellan Foundation’s mission is to “glorify God by leveraging the legacy, resources, relationships, and experience entrusted to us to serve those advancing Christ’s Kingdom around the globe.”

These funders raise potential questions about the objectives of the study in understanding religious freedom and to whom it applies.

Becket’s concept of religious freedom

In the survey, Becket asked respondents what religious freedom meant to them. Respondents were to rate the importance of 16 statements. Those 16 statements describe a coherent concept. Many Pagans would rate some statements prompts as important. Many too might be wary about endorsing them.

For example, Prompt 6 asks respondents to state their support for “Freedom for people to run their business or private organizations according to their religious beliefs.” However, the statement raises questions about workplace policy in recognition of faith-based holidays and LGBTQ rights or the choice of women over their bodies. Among respondents, 75% rated this as very important or essential.

Prompt 8 is also troubling: “The freedom to believe that certain behaviors and activities are immoral, sinful, and should be avoided in our society (gay marriage, adultery, abortion, pornography, capital punishment, destroying the environment, etc.).” This prompt generated 71 percent agreement.

The same is true in Prompt 10: “The freedom for any individual or group to believe that marriage is the union of a man and woman without having to worry about facing discrimination, penalties, or fines from government.” But the privileges of religious protection offered under the First Amendment may be confounded by the advancement of rights.  About 76% of respondents agreed with this prompt.

Prompt 16: “Freedom to practice one’s religion in daily life or at work even if it creates an imposition or inconvenience for others.” This generated 64% agreement. It is unclear if such imposition would be supported if the majority were the inconvenienced group.

A Different Look at Religious Freedom

By contrast, in July 2019, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) conducted polls on church-state separation issues. AU, a different advocacy organization, supports a strict separation of church and state. In their survey, 60% of respondents felt the separation of church and state to be important. Respondents in that survey rejected using religion as a license to discriminate or to deny access to birth control.

AU and Becket use the term “religious freedom” to reflect two very different concepts. Despite technical differences, there may be specific and motivated stances for the development of surveys, prompts, and questions underpinning the studies.

They raise obvious questions about the generalizability of their results to minority faiths as well as how the reported freedoms and issues apply to minority faiths such as those of Pagans, Heathens and polytheists.

The Wild Hunt attempted to reach out to the Becket Fund for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.