For most Americans, religious liberty important but not absolute

The past six weeks of political sparring over the White House’s contraception mandate have brought the issue of religious liberty-and … Continued

The past six weeks of political sparring over the White House’s contraception mandate have brought the issue of religious liberty-and debates about its scope and relationship to other rights-to the fore of national consciousness. Over the past month, American Catholic bishops, alongside prominent politicians (including presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich), have declared that the White House regulation which requires religiously affiliated organizations like hospitals, schools, and social service agencies to provide birth control to their employees at no cost, violates these organizations’ religious liberty.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais


President Obama, with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, announces changes to the insurance policy on contraception on Feb. 10.

Listening to the debates, one is often left with the impression that there are only stark binary choices. Recent polling from Public Religion Research Institute, however, shows that most Americans approach the issue in a nuanced way: They see the principle of religious liberty as important and secure, but not absolute.

There is near unanimity about the importance of religious liberty as a foundational American principle. Nearly 9-in-10 (88 percent) Americans agree that America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular.

Americans also generally see the principle as secure. The recent PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, shows that solid majorities of Americans overall (56 percent), as well as Catholics overall (57 percent), do not think religious liberty is threatened in American today.

But most Americans also make significant distinctions about religious liberty’s scope, weighing religious liberty concerns against other factors, such as whether organizations are principally religious (e.g., churches) or more loosely affiliated with a religious body (e.g., hospitals, colleges, and social service agencies), and whether or not the organization receives federal financing.

Americans clearly believe churches and other places of worship should be afforded the broadest scope with regard to religious liberty. A majority of Americans (52 percent) and a plurality (49 percent) of Catholics agree that churches and other places of worship should not be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception at no cost. However, majorities of Americans and Catholics overall do not afford this leeway to other religiously affiliated institutions such as colleges and universities, hospitals, and social service agencies. (Notably, the subgroup of white Catholics draw the lines differently and are more divided about extending this requirement to religiously affiliated organizations.)

Outside the context of the contraception debate, Americans also make similar distinctions on the issue of adoption by gay and lesbian couples. Last year, after Illinois’ civil unions law went into effect, several state-funded Catholic adoption agencies petitioned for the right to refuse to place children with same-sex couples, saying that to do so would violate their religious liberty. The state rejected their argument and moved to cancel over $30 million worth of contracts with the charities because they were not following state non-discrimination laws. Here, the issue of whether faith-based organizations receive federal funding can be crucial for understanding where in the debate Americans fall.

Here again, Americans hold nuanced views, differentiating between what should be required of religiously affiliated adoption agencies on the basis of whether or not they receive federal funding. A strong majority (63 percent) of Americans agree that religiously affiliated adoption agencies that receive federal funding should not be permitted to refuse to place children with qualified gay and lesbian couples. However, only half say the same of religiously affiliated adoption agencies that receive no federal funding.

Ironically enough, Catholics as a whole make less of a distinction on this issue than does the general public. Over 6-in-10 (63 percent) say that religiously affiliated adoption agencies that receive federal funding should not be permitted to refuse to place children with same-sex couples, while 57 percent say the same of religiously affiliated adoption agencies that do not receive federal funding. The subgroup of white Catholics, however, are more similar to Americans overall. A similarly strong majority (63 percent) agree that federally funded religiously affiliated adoption agencies should not be able to refuse to place children with qualified gay or lesbian couples, but only a slim majority (51 percent) agree that the same should be true for non-federally funded religiously affiliated adoption agencies.

Respect for religious liberty is a principle that Americans plainly embrace and mostly believe is secure in America today. But it’s also clear that Americans demarcate certain responsibilities from which religiously affiliated organizations (especially those that receive public funding) should not be exempted. The Obama administration’s recent accommodations, which allow women employed by religiously affiliated institutions to obtain no-cost birth control directly from their insurers, if their employers object, may not satisfy all critics. But they illustrate that some political agility and creativity, which dovetails with Americans’ nuanced approach to religious liberty, may prevent these rights and responsibilities from coming into sharp conflict – at least, in the eyes of the American people.


Robert P. Jones Dr. Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, values, and public life.
  • quimbanda

    we need stay alert, because discrimination and religious intolerance have the same degree of seriousness, or even greater, than racial discrimination, especially when it comes to be used as a weapon to generate fear, hatred and wars

  • RickWatcher

    I wonder who was polled exactly and what type of questions were asked.
    Right of Conscience was considered the choicest of rights by James Madison and all those debating the Amendments to the Constitution in 1789 and were not to be violated in any way for any reason.
    And if you don’t consider it an absolute right then you are either not a Christian or one who is not as close to God and His word as you should be.
    Our founders considered religion one of the sure supports of our form of government , and when they spoke of religion they meant the Christian religion and none other and only a socialist revised history mind set would say otherwise.
    The national socialists, Nazis, in Germany in the early 1900s removed true Christian exercise of faith from government and all public life as well so if you don’t want to repeat history better wake up to the truth before it’s too late.

  • amelia45

    As a Catholic, I do think that Catholic Churches, seminaries, convents, and religious houses should be exempt from the including contraceptives and sterilizations in health insurance coverage. However, Catholic hospitals, universities, and charities that employ people of all faiths, whose facilities or services are provided to people of all faiths, whose existence is supported by government money – they should have to provide all health insurance coverage that any other employer is mandated to provide. In other words, I am one of those who fit right into the majority of Catholics. The bishops do not speak for me.

    President Obama has tackled an important issue with sensitivity. He has compromised to give room for the Catholic bishops to be able to be removed a step from direct provision of what they consider immoral. However, as the President, he cannot and should not empower a religious organization to impose a religious viewpoint on those who work for them. There is a “common good” that we must strive to find and there is an important principal of religious freedom that must be respected. But we do not respect the religious freedom when we allow a religious organization to limit the religious freedom of the individual.

    What is happening in the state legislations is another matter. Women need to be speaking and voting against those who would deny them the ability to make choices about bearing children – when and how many. As far as I can see it, since I live in one of those Republican dominated states, there is not a single Republican I will be voting for in the next elections. No Democrat candidate could do as much damage to a woman’s ability to make important health care decisions on the advice of her doctors and with the support of her family as have Republicans. So, the answer is to vote them out until they come to their senses on the issue of women’s health care.

  • usapdx

    The RC bishops need to get it through their thick sulls that they or no one else can take a right from any American. If the insurance policy of a employee offers birth control coverage, a employee can then obtain it. Most USA RCs do not fully agree with the RCC on their church teachings on birth control. The supreme law of our country is the Constitution which is only by WE THE PEOPLE, not of any religion what so ever. All Americans have the right to pratice or not to pratice a religion. The law that needs to be repeled is the tax exempt law with groups that have large incomes and assets that get a free ride claiming tax exempt as they always speak on political matters and this nation is packing a $15 trillon debt.

  • colleen10001

    Incorrect. Your statement “The Obama administration’s recent accommodations, which allow women employed by religiously affiliated institutions to obtain no-cost birth control directly from their insurers, if their employers object, may not satisfy all critics.” Obviously the institutions will be paying for Sterilizations and other Objectionable practices, just by having an insurance plan-rrequiring the HHS MANDATE. The money for this comes from somewhere.
    WHY CAN’T the Obama Admin and HHS leave things as they CURRENTLY ARE for the Religious institutions. WHY CAN”T YOU just leave Religious institutions alone. RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS WERE AND ARE HANDLING EVERYTHING JUST FINE-WHY DOES THE GOVERNment NOW THINK IT SHOULD COME IN AND CHANGE how Religious institutions and insurance companies have always functioned.

  • colleen10001

    There isn’t a problem why is HHS and President getting involved!!
    Why does President Obama have to “tackle” (as you stated) a problem that doesn’t excist in the first pace. EVERYTHING AS IS, HAS BEEN WORKING PERFECTLY FINE concerning Religious institutions.
    The problem is the Government under president Obama with Kathleen Sebeluis coming in and changing what has and does work perfectly fine.

  • cricket44

    Businesses are NOT places of worship. Employees have religious liberties that need protecting and covering male healthcare but not female healthcare is NOT something that was working “just fine.”

  • persiflage

    While a number of religiously inclined folks and virtually ALL of the GOP nominees have tried to make a big deal out of the contraception issue, it’s all really very simple.

    If religious organizations choose to involve themselves in secular activities i.e. healthcare as an example, they will need to follow the secular/labor laws that govern those public enterprises. In such cases, religious organizations can’t expect ‘faith-based’ exemptions to existing laws, nor should they receive any kind of preferential treatment.

    Healthcare is not a religious activity. and by the same token, the practice of religion must function at all times within the confines of existing civil laws.

    A tempest in a teapot – which is not surprising considering the folks that made the most noise about a eminently non-religious issue. The GOP tried and failed to get any real mileage out this phony ‘religious freedom’ issue, instead of sticking to the business of secular governance – something they’re collectively not very good at to begin with.

  • TopTurtle


    Obama and HHS can’t leave things the way they’ve always been because there’s a better way.

    You say the money for contraception will come from somewhere, even if insurance companies eat the cost. I’m not sure this is really true. Insurance companies favor the most recent compromise because contraception is cheaper for them in the long run. So it seems that the savings in birth, pregnancy, and child healthcare costs more than pays for the contraception.

  • TopTurtle

    An absolute right? Do you think 7th Day Adventist hospitals should be able to provide health insurance that doesn’t cover cancer treatments? Do you think a Christian Scientist hospital should be able to provide health insurance that doesn’t cover blood transfusions? Do you think people should be able to practice human sacrifice according to their religious traditions?

    [Note to all: I don’t know if 7th Day Adventists as a whole object to cancer treatment. I chose that example because there’s a 7th Day Adventist cafe near where I live that’s constantly playing videos about how cancer treatment is hocum.}

  • thomasmc1957

    Funny how Baptists now want to have the Pope deciding religious freedom in America.

  • ccnl1

    Some nitty-gritty:

    “Twenty-one states offer exemptions from contraceptive coverage, usually for religious reasons, for insurers or employers in their policies: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan (administrative rule), Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas and West Virginia.”

  • persiflage

    Apparently you’re concerned that our faithful readers didn’t see this the first time you posted it just below –

  • ccnl1


  • dcrswm

    You’re an idiot if you the system works “perfectly fine”.

  • jade_alpha

    Your right to religious freedom ends when it causes suffering for your fellow human beings.

  • jy151310

    The Post invariably delivers the inside the beltway spin. Boring and predictable. It really isn’t a good business model. How is circulation doing?

  • Watcher1

    Waanh, waaanh, why can’t you leave the poor religious institutions ALONE! Waaanh, waaanh. Because the religious institutions (whatever flavor) keep wanting to get everyone else to do what THEY want them to do. The rest of us feel this way: Hey, you do what YOU want to do, your religious adherents can do what THEY want to do and obey what YOU want them to. The rest of us don’t have to, by law and you have no right to try and make us.

  • Watcher1

    Actually, the Nazi’s were Catholics, colluded with the Catholic church and the Catholic church colluded with the Fascists in Italy which is how the Vatican became it’s own country. The Catholic church is used to getting it’s way on everything. It’s the 21st century now and it’s long past time for them to stop getting their way.

  • ccnl1

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    (references used are available upon request)

  • Watcher1

    Yes, religions are typically intolerant and it would be even more serious, in fact very likely to be deadly serious if they were given in inch.

  • Watcher1

    AJAX, great video, incredible. I didn’t know about the Deer deaths, knew about the birds but didn’t know it happened two years in a row. Thanks….can’t recommend the video highly enough.

  • debwills

    Perhaps the problem is that we require employers to provide health care coverage. If the employer is faith-based, it certainly can present a moral conundrum. If the health care system were not dependent on employers, this would not be an issue. If society had a national debate re: assisted suicide, and decieded that it was a good idea for the country to legalize it and cover in our health policy, would we also require Catholic organizations to cover? Though I am a woman, and generally liberal in my own thinking, I fully understand the position of the bishops. We should be listening to one another in faith and understanding. Unfortunately our current political climate allows little room for such.

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