Nearly a quarter of Americans ― 22 percent ― either don’t know or don’t believe that U.S. Muslims are granted the same constitutional protections as other citizens. Roughly 20 percent don’t know or don’t think that atheists are protected under the Constitution.
These are among the findings of a new study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, released ahead of the Sept. 17 Constitution Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the U.S. Constitution’s signing in 1787.
The survey asked respondents whether they thought it was accurate to say that U.S. citizens who are Muslims have the same rights as all other citizens. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed said it was very accurate or somewhat accurate, while 18 percent said it was very or somewhat inaccurate. Four percent said they didn’t know.
On the same question about U.S. atheists, 79 percent said it was very accurate or somewhat accurate, and 15 percent said it was very or somewhat inaccurate. Five percent said they didn’t know.
The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey polled 1,013 U.S. adults about the government, the First Amendment and constitutional protections. This year marked the first time the survey included the questions about Muslims and atheists. The survey didn’t ask respondents about their knowledge of protections granted to Christians or other religious groups.
But it isn’t just the constitutional rights of Muslims and atheists that Americans are unclear on. Many Americans are highly misinformed about basic constitutional provisions, including what the First Amendment protects and even how the U.S. government is organized.
Fifty-three percent of Americans incorrectly think that undocumented immigrants aren’t afforded rights under the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled on that issue in the 1886 decision, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, declaring that noncitizens were included in the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
Just 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government ― down considerably from 38 percent in 2011, when APPC first included this question on the survey.
Thirty-seven percent of respondents were unable to name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Just under half of those surveyed named freedom of speech as a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
But far fewer could name the other First Amendment rights. Fifteen percent of respondents named freedom of religion; 14 percent identified freedom of the press; 10 percent named the right of assembly; and just three percent said the right to petition the government.
The First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
“Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, in a statement. “These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education in the schools and for press reporting that underscores the existence of constitutional protections.”
In the case of Muslims’ constitutional protections, misinformation can have real impact on people’s lives. Hate crimes against Muslims have risen sharply in recent years, often fueled by rhetoric from that paints the religious minority as outsiders in their own country.
“First you have to convince people that Muslims have the same rights as other Americans, and then you can go on to defend those actual rights."”
A major tactic of anti-Muslim campaigns and commentators has been to cast Islam as a political ideology rather than a religion, which would preclude Muslims from receiving protections on the basis of their faith.
“That’s been a common theme in the Islamophobia machine for a number of years ― the claim that Islam is not a religion and therefore that it should not have the First Amendment protections of a religion,” Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told HuffPost.
“I think this was really accelerated during the presidential campaigns, and now with the election of Donald Trump we’ve seen the mainstreaming of Islamophobic views such as this.”
Hooper noted the difficulty findings like those from the Annenberg survey present to civil rights organizations like CAIR whose mission is to ensure that Muslims’ rights aren’t just recognized, but also protected.
“That a quarter of the population believes Muslims aren’t even on the same playing field in terms of civil rights and religious rights and freedoms is a big hurdle to get over,” he said. “First you have to convince people that Muslims have the same rights as other Americans, and then you can go on to defend those actual rights.”