By Ryan Foley, Christian Post Reporter | December 7, 2022
WASHINGTON — A new survey reveals that most Americans support religious liberty protections for medical professionals and institutions opposed to participating in procedures that violate their beliefs and commitment to “do no harm,” even as younger Americans express more skepticism about religious liberty protections.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty unveiled the top findings of its 2022 Religious Freedom Index at its headquarters Tuesday. The fourth annual survey, conducted in conjunction with Heart and Minds Strategies, is based on responses collected from 1,004 adults in the United States from Sept. 28 to Oct. 5. The full report is slated for release Wednesday.
As Becket Fund for Religious Liberty President and CEO Mark Rienzi explained, the Religious Freedom Index asks “the same questions year after year [to] a big number people to get a sense of how the American people are feeling about religious liberty for themselves, for other people, for people of minority faiths, [and] people of faiths that they don’t necessarily share.”
One question on the survey asked respondents to react to statements related to religious objections to assisted suicide, abortion and sex change procedures within the medical community. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed agreed that “individual physicians should be allowed to opt out of assisted suicide, elective abortion, or sex change procedures” if performing such procedures goes against their religious beliefs or their commitment to “do no harm.”
When asked if they believed that “hospitals and healthcare systems which have ethical objections or are run by religious organizations should be allowed to refuse to perform elective abortions,” 62% answered in the affirmative. Additionally, a majority (59%) of those surveyed believed that “medical students should be able to opt out of instruction regarding physician-assisted suicide, elective abortions, and sex change procedures during training.”
Only half of respondents expressed support for allowing “hospitals and healthcare systems with religious objections to assisted suicide, elective abortions, and sex change procedures” to “only employ medical professionals who agree with that position.”
Achieving 74% support, the most popular idea introduced in the Religious Freedom Index states that “Patients and families should have access to healthcare facilities that share their beliefs about controversial procedures such as assisted suicide, elective abortion, or sex change procedures.”
The release of the 2022 Religious Freedom Index comes after the Biden administration has found itself in court over a mandate it issued forcing medical organizations to perform gender transition surgeries. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down the mandate and the Biden administration did not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving the decision in place.
Last year’s survey included a question measuring support for “freedom for healthcare workers with religious objections to abortion to not participate in abortion procedures.” Seventy-five percent of respondents either completely or mostly accepted allowing healthcare workers to opt out of performing abortions if they could not do so in good conscience.
At the same time, 44% of those surveyed believed that hospitals and healthcare systems run by religious organizations should have the ability to “set policies and standards that reflect the organization’s religious beliefs.”
The questions about the conscience rights of hospitals and healthcare workers constitute a small fraction of the inquiries posed to Americans in this year’s Religious Freedom Index. As in previous years, the survey asked Americans for their views on religion and policy, religion in action, religion in society, religious pluralism, church and state and religion sharing.
Based on responses to a series of questions, Becket calculated a dimension score on a scale of 0 to 100 for each of the subcategories examined, with 0 indicating “complete opposition for the principle of religious freedom at issue” and a score of 100 demonstrating “robust support for the same principle.” The Religious Freedom Index is a composite score calculated after combining the dimension scores.
Heart and Mind Strategies CEO Dee Allsop elaborated on the dimensions examined in the Religious Freedom Index at the event Tuesday. According to Allsop, questions about religious pluralism examine respondents’ views about “freedoms to choose your religion, and to be able to pray and pursue your beliefs.” The religious sharing dimension measures Americans’ beliefs pertaining to the ability to “talk about and preach about your faith.”
Questions about church and state survey public opinion about “government being involved in religion and religion in government.” The religion in society dimension seeks to determine “whether or not religion is part of the problem or part of the solution” to societal problems.
The religion and policy dimension queries respondents for their views about marriage and whether or not religious beliefs “should be guiding the way that we vote.” The religion in action dimension is based on responses to questions about whether or not there should be “freedom for people of faith to follow their own religious beliefs when they’re at work and in their profession.”
As panelists explained at the press conference, the overall Religious Freedom Index stood at 68 this year, showing no change from 2021. However, the changes in the index dimension scores from 2021 varied widely.
As in previous surveys, respondents demonstrated the highest level of support for religious pluralism. The dimension score for religious pluralism came in at 84 in 2022, an increase from 80 in 2021. The dimension scores for religious sharing and religion in action barely budged from 71 to 72 and 67 to 68, respectively.
On the other hand, support for religion in society, religion and policy, church and state and religion in action declined compared to last year. The dimension score for religion and policy dropped by three points from 68 to 65 between 2021 and 2022. The religion in society dimension score also decreased by three points, from 65 to 62.
Mirroring the results of previous surveys, the dimension dealing with church and state received the lowest score in 2022, dropping from 58 to 56 over the past year.
A group of panelists, moderated by Becket Law Executive Director Montse Alvarado, discussed the findings from the Religious Freedom Index and their implications for American society as a whole at the event Tuesday. With the U.S. Supreme Court case 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis case in the news, Americans indicated that they “overwhelmingly support” the right of a photographer not to participate in a same-sex wedding if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are.
The 303 Creative case centers on Colorado-based website designer Lorie Smith, who is challenging Colorado anti-discrimination law out of concern that it would force her to create websites for same-sex marriages in violation of her religious convictions about marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Oral arguments in the 303 Creative case took place Monday.
One panelist, Nick Tomaino of The Wall Street Journal, expressed gratitude for “the durable support for people like Lorie,” noting that the Religious Freedom Index found “about seven in 10 people thinking that Lorie Smith and others like her should be able to practice their faith.” At the same time, he highlighted a trend from the survey revealing that “Gen Z women aren’t registering their support.”
Other panelists also cited Gen Zers’ beliefs about religious freedom issues as a cause for concern going forward. Stephanie Slade of Reason Magazine pointed to statistics illustrating “abstract” support for religious liberty among the youngest Americans that fades when respondents are presented with a specific example: “Among Gen Z, you have a very high number (86%) who say … they support freedom of people or groups to choose not to participate in actions or work that violate their sincere religious beliefs and conscience.”
“When you put a specific example to them and you ask ‘should an individual physician, for example, be able to opt out of providing, say, being involved in abortion or physician-assisted suicide’ or something like that, support drops 50% among the Gen Z cohort,” she said.
Another panelist, Josh Good, director of the Faith Angle Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, attributed the hostility toward religious liberty among younger Americans to a “blind spot when it comes to religion” in American newsrooms. Tomaino suggested that having “religious practitioners in newsrooms” could help address this “blind spot.”
Tomaino contended that “there might be a caricature that newsrooms treat religion as something of a strange species.” Alvarado lamented the Religious Freedom Index’s finding that “37% of Americans had never heard of pregnancy centers being in any way being affected by post-Roe reality,” such as vandalism and bombings, as a consequence of media bias.
Alvarado and Slade suggested that had these people known about the targeting of pro-life pregnancy centers following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which determined that the U.S. Constitution did not contain a right to abortion, they would have become more sympathetic to arguments in favor of religious liberty.
“Story selection is a form of bias,” Slade asserted. “These stories are not getting the coverage that they deserve and they are not getting the coverage they would get if … when there are, in some cases, violence or any kind of harassment or attacks on an abortion provider, for example, these same journalists would know that this is a story and it deserves coverage and it’s a big deal.”
According to Slade, “In a healthy media ecosystem, we need people who are going out and just reporting the facts that are true.” She portrayed the current state of American media as focused on “the pure outrage-inducing opinion cable news-style journalism as opposed to reporting the facts,” where journalists see themselves on an “existential mission to represent the good against the evil.”
Slade also acknowledged that the irreligiosity of Gen Z compared to other generations might also play a role in their apparent hostility toward religious liberty: “Gen Z is much less religious themselves, they’re much less likely to think that religion’s part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”
“They’re much less supportive of freedom for people to run their businesses the way they want, for religious nonprofits to make employment decisions based on the tenets of their faith, which is a really important part of being a faith-based nonprofit, they’re much less likely to … support freedom to believe that certain behaviors are sinful.”
After Slade reiterated that Gen Z has “less sympathy and understanding of the value of religion in society,” Tomaino pointed to academic influence as a reason why. “The water they swim in universities tends to be overtly hostile to the faith,” he concluded. He circled back to the role the media plays in shaping public opinion: “Having news coverage of the positive contributions that faith organizations make is especially important.”
When Tomaino clarified that “males registered slightly more sympathy to religious causes” than females, Alvarado responded, “they’re more religious themselves.” Alvarado and the other panelists repeatedly stressed the importance of religious liberty in a pluralistic society, with the Becket Fund Executive Director sharing a quote from noted theologian Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “The Tree of Liberty has religious roots and don’t think that you can sever those roots and have the Tree of Liberty survive.”
For his part, Good offered up his opinion that “People being more religious, not less religious, is the key to understanding pluralism better.”
Discussing other takeaways of the 2022 Religious Freedom Index, Allsop noted that when asked if “religion is part of the solution to the problems we face in our society or part of the problem,” respondents were split down the middle. This constituted a dramatic drop from the 61% who saw religion as a solution to societal problems in 2021.
“Catholics in particular and non-Catholic Christians overwhelmingly say that they feel completely or a good amount accepted in our society,” he said. Stressing that feelings of acceptance were “not quite the same for those that are religious, non-Christians,” he reported that “less than half of them are feeling that high level of acceptance in our society.” Additionally, 89% of Americans agree that “sacred sites and religious practices of Native American Indians ought to be protected.”
When asked about the First Amendment, “Less than half of Americans recognize that freedom of religion is one of the protected rights in the First Amendment,” Allsop added. “Most Americans, even though they can’t find it in the First Amendment, they nevertheless feel that religious freedom plays a really important role and provides an important good in our society.”