At the end of July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new Religious Liberty Task Force that would defend the freedom to worship from an unspecified “dangerous movement” purportedly seeking to undermine it.
The announcement was widely seen as an extreme anti-LGBT gesture—a continuation of the Trump administration’s use of “religious liberty” as a way to push back on growing public support for LGBT equality.
But if new data from the Public Religion Research Institute is any indication, Americans may actually be growing more sympathetic to “religious liberty” arguments—at least in one specific context: wedding services.
In 2017, 53 percent of Americans responding to a survey conducted by the nonpartisan research organization said that businesses like bakeries shouldn’t be allowed to deny wedding services to same-sex couples.
In 2018, according to new PRRI data, only 48 percent said the same—a drop of five percentage points.
That five percent seems to have been won over by the “religious liberty” arguments that anti-LGBT legal groups have been advancing in court cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop, which focused on a Christian baker in Colorado who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
In 2017–before Masterpiece Cakeshop was argued and decided narrowly in favor of the baker—41 percent of Americans told PRRI that religious beliefs would be be sufficient grounds for a wedding-based business to deny service to a same-sex couple.
“The real difference is that we had this Masterpiece cake case in the intervening period that got a fair amount of press and publicity,” Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI told The Daily Beast. “This is an issue that I think a lot of people haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about in general. So, when it gets a lot of national press and comes to the fore, that may be accounting for some of the tightening here.”
Five percent of Americans might not seem like an enormous fraction of the population, but in the contentious and closely-watched debate over LGBT rights, any small swing in public opinion can have huge consequences. That amounts to 16 million Americans who who now believe religious providers of wedding services should be able to send away LGBT customers.
This five-percent shift comes from “a number of different places,” Jones explained.
For one, 36 percent of black Americans told PRRI in 2017 that wedding-based businesses should be able to deny services to same-sex couples. In 2018, that figure jumped to 45 percent.
However, when asked the broader question about whether small businesses as a whole should be able to turn away gay and lesbian customers, a clear majority of black Americans—63 percent—said no. That’s much higher than the 47 percent of white Americans who currently say no to the same question.
“While they may be more sympathetic on this very small arena of wedding-related businesses, for African Americans that does not at all translate to a blank check for all businesses,” Jones told The Daily Beast.
Part of the greater five-percent shift also came from Republicans, 73 percent of whom now say that wedding-based businesses should be able to deny services to LGBT people. That’s up from 67 percent last year.
It is also more closely aligned with the number of Republicans—64 percent—who believe that any small business should be able to send an LGBT customer back out the door.
Jones told The Daily Beast that such a partisan shift is to be expected—especially as a Republican presidential administration transforms a certain interpretation of “religious liberty” into a “very public part of Republican identity.”
“Just this week, for example, you have the announcement of the Religious Liberty Task Force by Jeff Sessions,” Jones said. “What we’re seeing is that this issue of religious liberty—being applied in this way—is over time becoming very visible as a kind of Republican platform piece.”
When that happens, according to Jones, research shows that the rank-and-file of the party has a tendency to fall in line: “The literature suggests that partisans really do take their cues from leaders, so when something gets declared to be a sort of orthodox position for the party, it crystallizes the issue for partisans on the ground.”
Jones cautions that the survey results should not be viewed as evidence of “any sort of overall shift away from support for LGBT rights,” especially because PRRI continues to see increases in support for LGBT issues like same-sex marriage.
But as high-profile court cases on this question continue to be heard and decided, a slip in support for same-sex couples could prove worrisome for LGBT advocates. There is indeed historical precedent for public opinion on key LGBT issues to backslide.
Support for same-sex marriage did not increase evenly and continuously over time. Gallup historical data shows that support for same-sex marriages reached 46 percent in 2007, only to dip back down to 40 percent during the first two years of the Obama presidency. Today, it stands strong at 67 percent.
Looking further back, Gallup data shows that support for the legality of homosexuality dipped in the mid-to-late 80s and then climbed to 60 percent by 2003 before plunging back down during the second term of George W. Bush. Now, only 23 percent of Americans think that homosexuality should be illegal.
The fact that public opinion on religious-based wedding service refusals is now more or less evenly split—46 percent supporting, 48 percent opposing—indicates that the issue could still be used as a wedge by anti-LGBT groups, just as same-sex marriage was used in the early 2010s, when public opinion on the issue was more evenly divided.
If the new PRRI data is any indication, anti-LGBT groups will have slightly more luck with these wedding service cases than with more general kinds of religious-based service refusals.
Although the percentage of Americans who generally oppose religious-based service refusals dipped from 56 percent in 2017 to 49 percent in 2018, not all of that six-percent loss translated into support for those refusals.
In 2017, 39 percent said that small businesses should, generally speaking, be able to deny service to gay men and lesbians and in 2018, 42 percent said the same—a three-percent increase. Those responses are not as close nor as cleanly divided as the latest responses to the more specific wedding services question.
“The wedding context has always been a little more mixed,” Jones told The Daily Beast. “I think people are more divided on that question.”
So although it would be almost impossible to turn back the tide of public opinion on same-sex marriage— only 28 percent of Americans told PRRI this year that Obergefell v. Hodges should be overturned—anti-LGBT groups may still see religious-based wedding service refusals as a battle that can be won.
“I think the rise of this religious liberty strategy is really a direct response to being routed on the bigger issue [of same-sex marriage], and looking for a strategy for carving out smaller areas of exemption even while losing the war on this issue,” said Jones.