- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2019

More than two-thirds of Americans hold generally favorable views of religious liberty, according to an index tracking one of the nation’s oldest civil rights.

“Even after decades of religious freedom being pulled into the culture wars, Americans accept and support a broad interpretation of religious freedom,” says the 2019 Religious Freedom Index, published Wednesday by Becket, a nonprofit law firm specializing in religious liberty issues.

The national survey undertaken last month employed an online questionnaire in which respondents addressed issues such as whether people who believe in traditional marriage should receive a penalty from the government and whether religious headgear be allowed at work.

Nearly 90% of respondents said people should be able to choose their faith practice without facing discrimination or harm. About 76% said professionals should have the freedom not to participate in actions or work that violates sincere religious beliefs.

“[Religious freedom] could be an area where Americans are more united than divided,” Caleb Lyman, Becket’s director of researcher and analytics, said Wednesday at an unveiling of the index in Washington, D.C.

However, the index found support for religious expression trends downward in conflicts over the division of church and state. Just over half (56%) said they support the government using religious symbols or language in public displays. And 57% said “good works” would still happen without people of faith or religious organizations.

Religious liberty over the last five years has featured in high-profile court cases, such as that involving a Christian baker who refused to create a cake for a same-sex wedding and a Lutheran preschool’s lawsuit to access public dollars for resurfacing playgrounds. Such issues have energized religious liberty advocates, including those in the Trump administration.

“The White House has dealt with this over several administrations [going] back to” the presidency of George W. Bush, said Adelle Banks, editor at Religion News Service who spoke at a panel Wednesday.

Ms. Banks said that ideas about what faith-based initiatives can be supported with public dollars have evolved, noting that the Obama administration withheld funds from “inherently religious” programs.

She suggested that, while religious practice rates drop around the country, support for religious pluralism remains strong, especially among younger generations.

“I do think that there is an assumption that people who are millennials don’t care about God or faith, and that’s not necessarily the case,” Ms. Banks said, adding that younger Americans see their friends “like the United Nations.”

The Becket index found that 52% of Generation Z (born between 1996 and 2010) support coworkers wearing religious clothing or refusing to work certain days of the week, compared to 31% of the Silent Generation (born between the 1920s and 1945) expressing such support.

Asma Uddin, a scholar at the Freedom Forum Institute, suggested that public approval for the rights of religious practitioners to live out their faith without fear or repercussion varies, pointing to former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s call earlier this year for revoking churches’ tax-exempt status. She noted that MSNBC pundits asked him the next day how his proposal would affect his support for minority groups.

Ms. Uddin said that, with minority faiths such as Islam and Judaism, “we see more black-and-white violations” of religious liberty.

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