It was going to the Big One, LGBT people feared.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal were poised to sue. Almost every LGBT organization issued a strongly-worded statement in response to widespread media reports—beginning with a Monday Politico article—that executive action on “religious liberty” was coming this week, and that the language might be nearly as “strong” as the sweeping draft that The Nation obtained in February.
Then Thursday came, and the executive order barely registered on the Richter scale. So what happened? After years of anti-LGBT groups and politicians attempting to use “religious freedom” arguments to carve out room for discrimination, why wouldn’t the draft leaked to The Nation in February make it to the desk of a President who courted evangelicals and selected Indiana Governor Mike Pence of RFRA fame as his VP?
One likely answer might be that an anti-LGBT “religious liberty” order would be enormously unpopular—even among the religious Americans it would supposedly be intended to protect.
As The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson observed, the “Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” President Trump signed on Thursday morning does two things: It curtails the Johnson Amendment’s ban on 501(c)3 nonprofits supporting or opposing political candidates—which the IRS wasn’t really enforcing anyway—and it underscores exemptions from the Affordable Care Act that religious organizations were already using. Afterward, the ACLU retracted its plans to sue and called the signing ceremony “an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome.”
This time, at least, the major anti-LGBT action was just a drill—although an atheist group is still suing over the order.
But most religious Americans weren’t exactly clamoring for the two milder provisions that made it into Thursday’s executive order anyway, as polling data from the Public Religion Research Institute shows.
According to their data, only 36 percent of white evangelical Protestants supported allowing churches to endorse candidates and 56 percent of white evangelical protestants support requiring employers to include contraception in their health care offerings at no cost.
Among the broader U.S. population, PRRI data shows, both provisions of the executive order are enormously unpopular, with only 22 percent and 30 percent of Americans opposing the Johnson Amendment and a contraception mandate respectively.
That helps explain why Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, would tell the New York Times, “I don’t actually know anybody who has endorsed or who wants to endorse a politician from the pulpit.”
As the Times reported, there was “stinging disappointment” from anti-LGBT groups who were expecting the Trump administration to take more drastic action along the lines outlined in the draft of the executive order obtained by the Nation in February.
But using “religious freedom” for anti-LGBT purposes is only marginally more popular than opposing the Johnson Amendment or undoing the contraception mandate—yes, even among religious Americans. After the Nation leaked the draft of the “religious liberty” order in February, PRRI conducted polling on many of its more controversial provisions.
Overall, 61 percent of Americans oppose measures that allow small business to refuse services to gay people based on religion. That includes majorities of Mormons, Catholics, mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Unitarians.
What’s more is that white evangelical protestants were just about evenly split, with 50 percent supporting religious-based service refusals to gay people, 42 percent opposing, and 8 percent either abstaining from the question or saying they “don’t know” the answer.
In fact, the nation witnessed firsthand how unpopular anti-LGBT “religious freedom” actions were in 2015 when then-Governor of Indiana Pence signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, prompting widespread boycotts and public backlash.
Polling at that time showed that Pence’s approval rating in his state took a nosedive post-RFRA. The last time there were rumors of broad anti-LGBT executive action coming from the White House in February, two sources with knowledge of those internal discussions suggested to the Daily Beast that Pence was not exactly eager to repeat that experience.
So while the executive order may help the Trump administration’s relationship with a small group of evangelical fundraisers, as The Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff reported, it stops well short of incurring the wrath of anti-LGBT legal organizations—and angering a public that largely opposes more drastic anti-LGBT actions in the name of religion.
Indeed, public opinion polling suggests that the days of anti-LGBT “religious freedom” arguments may be numbered—at least in terms of public opinion. A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center found that nearly every Christian group had grown more accepting of homosexuality from 2007 to 2014: Mormon acceptance went up from 24 percent to 36 percent, Catholics increased from 58 to 70 percent, and so on.
Even evangelical Protestant acceptance saw a significant boost from 26 to 36 percent. And when it comes to transgender rights, PRRI found in February of this year that 52 percent of white evangelical Protestants acknowledge that transgender people “already face a lot of discrimination.”
Taken together, the Pew data showing increasing (but still relatively low) acceptance of homosexuality among religious Americans and the PRRI data showing that religious Americans mostly oppose religious-based service refusals paints a powerful picture: Large percentages of people of faith are morally opposed to LGBT identity but disagree that they should be allowed to discriminate against LGBT people.
Thursday wasn’t the Big One for LGBT groups, who have now largely turned their attention to the health care debate. But even if a more expansive anti-LGBT “religious liberty” order comes, it will shake many religious Americans, too.
The tectonic plates of public opinion have shifted—and they favor LGBT people.