September 28, 2016

Where the Public Stands on Religious Liberty vs. Nondiscrimination

Two-thirds say employers should provide birth control in insurance plans, but public is split over same-sex wedding services and use of public bathrooms by transgender people

The U.S. public expresses a clear consensus on the contentious question of whether employers who have religious objections to contraception should be required to provide it in health insurance plans for their employees. Fully two-thirds of American adults say such businesses should be required to cover birth control as part of their employees’ insurance plans, according to a new Pew Research Center survey, while just three-in-ten say businesses should be allowed to refuse to cover contraception for religious reasons.

The survey of more than 4,500 U.S. adults explores recent controversies that have pitted claims of religious liberty and traditional morality against civil rights and nondiscrimination policies. And it finds that Americans are more closely divided on two other hotly debated questions: whether businesses should be able to refuse service to same-sex couples, and whether transgender people should be required to use particular restrooms.

About half of U.S. adults (49%) say businesses that provide wedding services, such as catering or flowers, should be required to provide those services to same-sex couples as they would for any other couple. But a nearly equal share (48%) say businesses should be able to refuse services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality.

And in the debate over bathroom use by transgender people, roughly half of Americans (51%) say transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms of the gender with which they currently identify, while nearly as many (46%) say transgender individuals should be required to use restrooms of the gender they were born into.1

The U.S. public appears polarized on these debates, just as it is on many other aspects of American politics. One of the goals of the survey was to see how many Americans feel torn because they can understand where both sides are coming from on these issues. The short answer is: not many.

Before being asked to state which position is closest to their own, respondents were asked how much, if at all, they sympathize with the arguments on either side of an issue. (For full question wording, see topline.)

Relatively few took the opportunity to express at least some sympathy for both sides. For example, just over a third of U.S. adults sympathize only with those who say businesses that provide wedding services should be required to provide them to same-sex couples as they would to any other customers, and 31% sympathize only with those who say businesses should be able to refuse services to same-sex couples if the business owner has a religious objection. Just 18% say they have at least some sympathy for both sides, while an additional 15% sympathize with neither side.

Similarly, three-in-ten Americans sympathize only with those who say transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms of the gender with which they identify, and a similar share sympathize only with those who say transgender people should be required to use public restrooms of the gender they were born into. Again, 18% say they can see where both sides are coming from.

These are among the main findings of a new Pew Research Center survey of 4,538 adults conducted between Aug. 16 and Sept. 12, 2016. The survey was administered online and by mail among a nationally representative sample. For more details, see the methodology.

The widespread support for requiring employers to cover birth control in health insurance plans may reflect, in part, the fact that very few Americans think that using contraception is morally objectionable. More than nine-in-ten adults think using birth control is either morally acceptable (36%) or not a moral issue at all (57%); just 4% say using contraception is morally wrong.

Americans are much more conflicted, however, about the morality of homosexual behavior. While most say homosexual behavior is either morally acceptable (17%) or not a moral issue (45%), about a third of U.S. adults (35%) believe it is morally wrong. And among those who say homosexual behavior is morally wrong, a large majority (76%) also say businesses that provide wedding services should be able to refuse to serve same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections.

A note on question wording

Advocates have often framed the issues covered in this report as matters of religious liberty or traditional morality on the one hand, or as matters of discrimination or civil rights on the other. The question wording in this survey did not adopt either of these approaches. Rather, respondents were given three different scenarios, posing two possible sides of each issue. Respondents were asked how much they might sympathize with either side, providing an opportunity to express some ambivalence about these complex issues. Then, respondents were asked which of the two sides comes closest to their own view.

For example, on the issue of whether businesses that provide wedding services should be able to refuse to provide them to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality, respondents were presented with the vignette below, followed by three questions on the matter (see topline questionnaire for exact question wording, including randomizations of phrases and question order).

As you may know, same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. Some argue that businesses that provide wedding-related services, such as catering or flowers, should be able to refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality. Others argue that businesses that provide wedding-related services should be required to provide those services to same-sex couples just as they would to all other customers. We’re interested in your views about this situation.

Question 1:       How much, if at all, do you sympathize with those who say businesses should be able to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality? A lot, some, not much or not at all?

Question 2:       How much, if at all, do you sympathize with those who say businesses should be required to provide services to same-sex couples just as they would to all other customers? A lot, some, not much or not at all?

Question 3:       And if you had to choose, which comes closest to your view? Businesses that provide wedding services, such as catering or flowers should be: able to refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality, OR required to provide those services to same-sex couples just as they would to all other customers?

Religious and political differences

When it comes to views about employer-provided birth control, services for same-sex weddings and use of public restrooms by transgender people, there are large differences between some religious groups. White evangelical Protestants tend to say businesses that provide wedding services should be allowed to turn away same-sex couples and that transgender people should be required to use the public restroom of the gender they were born into. And roughly half of white evangelical Protestants say employers should be allowed to refuse to provide birth control in health insurance plans for their employees. Most religiously unaffiliated Americans (i.e., those who identify as atheists or agnostics or describe their religion as “nothing in particular”) and Jews take the opposite views on these three issues. Black Protestants and Catholics tend to be closely divided on these questions – with the exception of employer-provided contraception coverage. Majorities in each group believe employers should be required to provide contraception in health care plans for their employees.

There also are sharp partisan divides on these questions. While more than eight-in-ten Americans who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party say employers should be required to provide contraception coverage in health insurance plans for employees, Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP are more evenly divided, with 51% saying employers who have religious objections to the use of birth control should be able to refuse to provide it. And while two-thirds of Democrats say businesses that provide wedding services should be required to serve same-sex couples and that transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms that match their gender identity, majorities of Republicans take the opposite views on these issues.

Most Americans know someone who is gay or lesbian, fewer know someone who is transgender

A large majority of Americans (87%) say they personally know someone who is gay or lesbian. A much smaller share – only three-in-ten – personally know someone who is transgender.2

Much like the general public overall, Americans who personally know someone who is gay are closely divided over whether wedding-related businesses should be required to provide services to same-sex couples. Those who do not know anyone who is gay are somewhat more likely to say businesses should be able to refuse services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections.

Knowing someone who is transgender is closely linked with views on the use of public restrooms. Most people who personally know someone who is transgender say that transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms that match their current gender identity (60%). Americans who do not know any transgender people, by contrast, are more evenly divided as to whether transgender people should be allowed to use the restrooms of their gender identity (47%) or required to use the restrooms of their birth gender (50%).

Some of the survey’s other key findings include:

  • One-in-five U.S. adults say their views on homosexuality have changed over the past few years, and most say they have become more accepting. Among the most common reasons given for changing viewpoints are having a friend or family member who is gay or lesbian and coming to the belief that people are free to live their lives however they choose.
  • Women are more likely than men to say employers should be required to cover birth control in the health care plans they offer employees (72% vs. 62%). Women are also more likely than men to say that wedding-related businesses should be required to serve same-sex couples despite religious objections (54% vs. 44%) and that transgender people should be able to use restrooms that match the gender with which they identify (55% vs. 45%).
  • U.S. adults under age 30 differ from older Americans in their views regarding bathroom use by transgender people: Two-thirds of those ages 18 to 29 say transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms matching their current gender identity, while Americans over 30 are much more divided. Young adults also are more likely than their elders to say employers should be required to provide contraception coverage in health care plans and that businesses should be required to provide services to same-sex couples.
  1. There are many different terms associated with transgender identity and gender identity more broadly, and this terminology continues to change over time and is also dependent on personal preference and identification. In designing this survey and writing this report, in order to prevent confusion among respondents and improve the accuracy of results, Pew Research Center sought to use terms that the general public, including those who are not well-versed in this topic, would understand, even if those might not be the terms preferred by those in the transgender community.
  2. The latest estimate indicates that 0.6% of U.S. adults, or about 1.4 million people, identify as transgender.