Which groups deserve religious freedom rights? It depends on what you think of the groups

By Daniel Bennett and Logan Strother

Disputes over religious freedom in the United States are nothing new, especially in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. And while that case involved the collision between varying rights arguments, the reach of religious freedom does not end there. Indeed, conflicts involving religious freedom have been central to the American story for generations.

In ongoing research, we examine the extent to which Americans believe constitutional rights apply broadly – that is, to both favored and disfavored groups. Part of this research involves the application of religious freedom protections, and whether one’s perception of certain religious traditions matter for one’s support for constitutional protections for those traditions.

Last year, we surveyed a representative sample of 1,013 Americans via Survey Sampling International. We showed people a vignette describing a religious group being denied building permits for their house of worship. This scenario is not purely hypothetical, as Emma Green of The Atlantic has detailed. Some respondents saw the following:

Last month, a city government denied a group of religious citizens the permits needed to build a new worship facility. In justifying its decision, at least one official cited the “extreme” nature of the group’s beliefs, and an aversion to “unnecessary conflict” in the community.

Other respondents saw the same story, but with the identity of the religious group specified: some saw the vague “religious citizens” swapped with “Evangelical Christian residents,” while others saw the vague term swapped with “Muslim residents.” We then asked our respondents, “Do you support or oppose the city’s decision to restrict a religious group’s ability to build a worship facility?”

In addition, we also measured feelings toward Evangelical Christians and Muslims by asking people to rate these groups on feeling thermometers ranging from 0 (very cold) to 100 (very warm).

Our results indicate that Americans do tend to equate the actions described in the vignette with violating religious freedom rights. Importantly, though, our results also show that what Americans believe about a religious group matters for whether they believe said group’s religious freedom rights have been violated.


For example, for those in the Evangelical Christian treatment of our experiment, feeling more warmly toward Muslims than Evangelical Christians equated to a 60 percent chance of seeing the government’s action as a rights violation, while expressing warmer feelings toward Evangelical Christians than Muslims saw that number increase to over 80 percent. And while this result was not statistically significant, the direction of the relationship is noteworthy.

At the same time, for those in the Muslim treatment, feeling more warmly toward Muslims than Evangelical Christians virtually guaranteed seeing the government’s action as a rights violation. For those with warmer feelings toward Evangelical Christians than Muslims, though, the number drops to roughly 40 percent. And unlike the results from the Evangelical Christian treatment, these results are highly statistically significant.

A good deal of research in political science has found that group attitudes matter for public opinion, across a wide range of substantive issues. Moreover, recent research has demonstrated that group affinities play a significant role in structuring identity beyond politics. Indeed, polarization extends to disputes over religious freedom and claims of discrimination. As we show in our research, this is undoubtedly the case for religious freedom in other contexts.

As we said in a recent article for The Monkey Cage, “many people don’t recognize rights claims by groups they don’t like.” Our research shows that this proposition holds true in the domain of religious freedom, as Religion in Public contributor Andy Lewis has argued elsewhere. This carries important implications for the future of religious pluralism and constitutional rights in America.

Daniel Bennett is an assistant professor of political science at John Brown University. You can follow him on Twitter at @BennettDaniel.

Logan Strother is an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University. You can follow him on Twitter at @ LoganRStrother.

Featured image courtesy of Colorado Public Radio.


  1. Ground breaking survey & Great work by Prof Bennett & Prof Strother. Next, Area of study should be “Examine USCIRF & US State Dept Religious Freedom annual report to see if they apply free-speech, equal-rights, gay-rights, religious-law parameters broadly for both favored and disfavored group or not?”
    Few Examples:
    1) USCIRF 2017 report recommends for India are Establish Religion Based Laws for minority, Censor free-speech of Hindus, Ban Hindu groups, Provide full judicial power to non-judicial 6 member minorities commission (all 6 members are nonHindu).
    2) US State Dept 2008 religious freedom report opposes investigation of Warden Pastor Jacob James in sexual abuse of 23 kids under his care.
    3) A keyword search of USCIRF global report covering ALL countries give an impression that 88% of world’s terrorist/extremist/exclusivist are Hindus.


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