By Paul A. Djupe, Andrew R. Lewis, Ryan P. Burge, and Anand E. Sokhey
[Image credit: Brides.com]
Religious freedom was once the province of religious minorities – Jews who wanted to keep business open on Sunday, Native Americans who wanted to use banned substances in religious rituals, etc. But now, after the Obergefell same-sex marriage decision in 2015 and even after the Bostock civil rights decision in 2020, religious groups historically in the majority are claiming the right to refuse service to LGBT Americans due to religious objections. Conservative Christian bakers, photographers, florists, calligraphers, and tax preparers have all refused service to LGBT Americans on account of their religious beliefs that same-sex marriage is sinful. Putting aside how individual service providers feel, we sought to understand how the American public thinks about service refusals: are they consistent in the application of religious freedom in all cases?
These cases are difficult ones, which clearly pit religious freedom claims against states’ compelling interest to enable citizens to operate freely without discrimination. Legal approaches might look to draw lines along the type of service that is provided – artistic services are given more weight than standard products available to anyone because they require the expression of viewpoints. Coercion of that viewpoint is seen as repugnant to the First Amendment protections, especially to free speech. And in fact, this is often how these disputes are parsed during legal review. But average citizens may see this differently.
We suspected that many citizens would respond in ways that suggest the influence of disgust. Some services are provided at some physical remove (tax preparers, florists, bakers), while others, especially photographers, interact with their clients. Though the claims may be no different, as florists may exercise as much artistic liberty as photographers, the context of their interaction with gay clients may be seen as more problematic by those, such as evangelical Protestants, who have been socialized to think homosexuality is sinful.
In our forthcoming article at Social Science Quarterly, we review the results of an experiment designed to assess whether the context of claiming religious freedom shapes public support. Here’s how we did it. Twenty percent of the sample was asked “Do you favor or oppose allowing a small business owner in your state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people if doing so violates their religious beliefs?” The response scale ranged from strongly opposing the small business (=1) to strongly favoring their refusal of service (=5). Then we added a sentence providing further context for the remaining 80 percent of the sample, varying whether they read about a photographer or florist as well as whether it was for a wedding or a non-religious event.
We were particularly interested to see whether a same-sex religious event (a wedding) would generate much more support for the service provider since that is the primary basis on which these claims are made, so half heard about a wedding and half about a non-sacral event (either prom or birthday). But, if reactions are ruled by disgust, then we expect that photographers, whether or not they were taking wedding photos, would gain more support than florists since the photographer has to interact with LGBT clients whereas florists can maintain their distance.
The results come from a sample of 800 residents of Colorado surveyed in October 2019 and sponsored by the American Politics Research Lab and the Keller Center for the Study of the First Amendment at University of Colorado, Boulder. The figure below shows the results for each treatment group organized by evangelical identification. There is no variation for non-evangelicals, but there is for evangelicals. The lowest support for the service provider was given in the control condition that provided no additional context.
Importantly, evangelicals granted more support to both of the photographer treatments compared to the control condition (and, on average, the photographer received more support than the florist when both contexts are combined). Moreover, it is clear that providing a service for a wedding did NOT generate more support for refusing service. In fact, it is somewhat less, though not significantly so.
These findings suggest that the public’s support for objections to serving LGBT Americans is less about religious principle and more about socialized negative reactions. But it would be ideal to have more than suggestive results. To see if the reactions are socialized, we can assess whether frequent attenders have stronger reactions than those less deeply embedded in a religious community. The following figure shows this, again separating out evangelicals from others. The results are a stark confirmation of the power of a socialized response. There is no effect of the treatments on low attending evangelicals (those attending less than once a month), whereas support for the photographer is higher than the florist among high attenders.
Why does this matter? This debate matters in courts of public opinion and also courts of law. In public, the assumption is widespread that those who refuse service are homophobes. It is more understandable and sympathetic if people justify not participating in same-sex union ceremonies because of their religion rather than their prejudice against a particular kind of person. This was the argument made by the Huguenins regarding their photography business – they served LGBT clients, just not in the context of same-sex weddings. Courts are motivated by principled decision making because it is religion that is protected, not prejudice. Martha Nussbaum made just this claim in her 2006 book: disgust is not a valid basis for Constitutional protection.
We are not arguing that disgust reactions explain all of public support for service refusals among evangelicals, nor are we making arguments about what specific claimants believe. Instead, we find strong support for the notion that evangelical Protestants are socialized to have negative feelings toward LGBT Americans that we find consistent with a disgust response; they react more strongly when a context – like the intimate interaction of photography – triggers it. They do not respond in ways that suggest a same-sex religious ritual is especially problematic. Of course, this is consistent with a long series of academic studies that find conservative Christians do not like LGBT Americans, but this is the first time variation by service providers has been documented in service refusal opinions consistent with the role of prejudice.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the book series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (check out his other posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.
Andrew R. Lewis is an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars (Cambridge, 2017). He is on Twitter at @AndrewRLewis.
Anand E. Sokhey is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He currently serves as the Director of the Keller Center for the Study of the First Amendment and the American Politics Research Lab. He is on Twitter at @AESokhey.