Despite what it sounds like on the campaign trail, Americans of all religious backgrounds are opposed to curtailing freedoms for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. While Marco Rubio states that "...faith-based people...are being compelled to sin by government in their business conduct" and Ted Cruz is calling 2016 the "religious liberty election," statistics show a more complicated relationship between American religion and LGBT issues. A majority of Americans - across the religious spectrum - think that people should not be fired from a job, denied housing or evicted from their home simply because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
While more than 50% of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons do support Religious Refusal bills, every other American religious group - including Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Muslims - oppose them. Moreover, majorities in every single American religious group - including white evangelical Protestants and Mormons - would support legislation protecting LGBT individuals from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing.
The Public Religion Research Institute, drawing on 42,000 interviews conducted in 2015, issued a recent report showing that even among religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage, a majority support legal protections for LGBT people and do not believe that small business owners in their states should be able to refuse products or services to gay or lesbian people on religious grounds. Even where their religion has been vocal in opposing same sex marriage, a majority of Americans (53%) support it.
The survey comes in the wake of a slew of anti-LGBT religious refusal bills being proposed at the state level which would allow businesses to refuse services to LGBT people and eliminate the ability of local governments to protect LGBT residents and visitors through non-discrimination ordinances.
On the national scene, the conservative American Principles Project approached all of the presidential hopefuls late last year to endorse the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), hoping to get their pledge to support legislation during their first 100 days in the White House that would, according to the ACLU, "permit government employees to discriminate against married same-sex couples and their families - federal employees could refuse to process tax returns, visa applications, or Social Security checks for all married same-sex couples, and allow businesses to discriminate by refusing to let gay or lesbian employees care for their sick spouse, in violation of family medical leave laws."
The act goes beyond affecting just LGBT people: it would allow landlords to refuse housing to a single mother on the religious grounds that sexual relations must only occur within the bounds of marriage. Six of the Republican candidates pledged to back the act, and three more have endorsed similar ideas. No Republican candidate has publicly opposed the bill.
But the findings of the Public Religion Research Institute reveal that it is no longer possible to make blanket assumptions that people who affiliate themselves with a religious institution will support legislation that legalizes discrimination against LGBT individuals and families. When 73% of Catholics, 72% of Mormons, and 57% of white, Evangelical Protestants support LGBT nondiscrimination laws, we begin to see a more complex picture of religion in America.
The numbers challenge some deeply ingrained myths about religion and religious people. First, no religious tradition is monolithic. Within each denomination, there is a wide array of belief and practice, and without fail, every American religious tradition is engaged in a struggle about LGBT inclusion.
Second, the Public Religion Research Institute numbers challenge the overstated notion that all religions are, or should be, unchanging and timeless, unaffected by their surroundings. Even if these statistics merely reflect a shift amongst laypeople and not leadership, they still support a theory of change, albeit slow, within all religious traditions.
As Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson writes in Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives, "Most people would tell you that religions are the keepers and preservers of unchanging, eternal truths. They would be wrong." If a religion has stood the test of time, it is because its adherents have struggled with new ideas and found ways to incorporate them. In fact, confronting and incorporating change is built into many religions. This kind of evolution occurs differently across the spectrum of traditions. For some, rather than doctrine or ideology changing with people following afterward, the opposite is true. A slow, subtle shift in attitude is followed by (or is concurrent with) expansive approaches to theology, ideology, and scriptural interpretation, and then, perhaps, changes in doctrine over time.
Third, there is a prevailing assumption that individuals will hold anti-LGBT religious doctrine above other religious ideals. More and more religious leaders and lay people are prizing overarching principles of faith, such as compassion, love, dignity, and welcome over negative religious legislation. Even where there are prohibitions on the books disallowing same-sex relationships or activity, there is an underlying call for compassion and a support of individuals' rights. Most Americans now know someone who is LGBT, and see this acronym no longer as an amalgamation of heady labels but as a face of someone they love, someone they work with, someone who has struggled. Those Americans are more likely to see that individual as someone who should be able to rent an apartment, keep a job, and even marry the one they love.