Religious freedom laws an all-American dispute, researchers find

· 3 min read

Religious freedom laws an all-American dispute, researchers find

Nebraska's Emily Kazyak (left) and Kelsy Burke
Greg Nathan | University Communication
Nebraska's Emily Kazyak (left) and Kelsy Burke

A Colorado baker’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple is so divisive that it has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Following legalization of same-sex marriage, some states have passed laws that allow business owners to refuse services to same-sex couples based upon religious belief.

Yet new research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln indicates that most Nebraskans — 64 percent of nearly 1,100 survey respondents — oppose such laws. The results mirror national polls that have shown religious freedom laws lack broad support among Americans.

Sociologists Emily Kazyak and Kelsy Burke analyzed responses to why Nebraskans support or oppose a business owner’s right to refuse service to gays and lesbians to gain insight into why these laws continue to gain traction in state Legislatures even though most Americans do not actually agree with them. Mathew Stange, who received his doctorate in survey research and methodology at Nebraska and is now a survey researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, also participated in the study.

They found that both sides base their appeals upon bedrock American values of freedom and capitalism.

Those who side with the baker say he has the right to act upon his religious convictions and that free enterprise means that plenty of other bakers would serve the couple. Those who side with the couple say they have the right to be free from discrimination and that free enterprise demands that all customers be served.

Kazyak said both sides share the belief that Americans have a fundamental right to freely live their lives.

“The disagreement is not over the value of freedom or equality per se,” she said. “It’s over the questions of whose rights are most worthy of protection and whose freedom is potentially jeopardized in the current moment.”

The researchers noted that as LGBTQ people have gained acceptance and visibility, the conservative Christians have begun to portray themselves as a group under threat.

“Protestant Christians have always been the dominant religious group in America, yet evangelical Protestant legislators are now leading efforts to pass these religious freedom laws,” Burke said. “They are thus sending a clear message that they believe their religious beliefs are under threat.”

The Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the Colorado case in December, is expected to rule on the matter by June.

The study was based on data collected by the 2015 Nebraska Annual Social Indicators Survey. The survey is an annual cross-sectional omnibus poll of Nebraskans aged 19 and older, conducted by the Bureau of Sociological Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Findings were published online Feb. 28 in Socius, a research journal of the American Sociological Association.

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