November 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

I fear, dear loyal church-state separationist, that this column may find you a little bone-weary from the dizzying array of attacks on religious freedom these days. So, I write to share some uplifting news.

Sixty percent of the country says that protecting the separation of religion and government is either one of the most important things to them personally or very important. And nearly half of likely 2020 voters (47 percent) say they would be more likely to support a candidate who would safeguard church-state separation, with only 11 percent saying they would be less likely.

How do I know this? Because this July, AU took the plunge into some new terrain and conducted our first-ever public opinion research. The goals were twofold: to understand better where we are on our issue with the general public and among different demographic groups and to learn how best to connect with different audiences on the importance of church-state separation.

The first task was figuring out which public opinion research firm to hire. We went with Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, one of the nation’s most respected and accurate polling firms, and a firm that has some experience polling on religious refusals.

Our poll surveyed 2,002 self-identified likely 2020 voters and included people of different ages and from different racial, religious, geographic and educational backgrounds. The poll was conducted in Spanish and English.

We know, especially after the 2016 election, that polls are not foolproof. And interpreting the results is not as straightforward as it might seem. That said, this poll offered many insights that will help guide our future work. It will also inform future public opinion research we do.

Let me tell you some more about the poll results. When we asked which church-state issues voters found most compelling, the answer was clear: Americans are concerned about “religious freedom” being used as a license to discriminate both in employment and concerning health care access. This issue has been in the news a lot lately, so maybe it’s not surprising it topped the list.

When we asked what voters’ top three priorities were specifically for Americans United, the results were quite similar: (1) ensuring that businesses, employers and health care providers can’t use religion as a reason to discriminate; (2) ensuring taxpayer-funded organizations can’t discriminate in who they hire based on the applicant’s religion; and (3) ensuring that religion is not used to deny women access to birth control. (Notably, ensuring that religion is not used to deny women access to “birth control, abortion care, and emergency contraception” was nearly tied for third.)

These issues were top priorities across race, age, region and religion, with very few exceptions. Our pollsters let us know that it is quite rare and fortunate to see such uniformity.

The poll also sought to ascertain which messages about the separation of religion and government have special appeal for Americans and are most persuasive. Information like this is useful because it helps Americans United craft messages that win new support for the organization.

The poll found that respondents like the approach of tying church-state separation to the aspirational idea of religious freedom and reminding everyone that church-state separation is a founding principle and key feature of the US Constitution. They also resonated with the idea that religious freedom is a shield to protect, not a sword to harm.

The poll validated that education about church-state issues is key. I stated earlier that 60 percent of voters said that protecting church-state separation was either one of the most important things or a very important thing to them personally. But after looking at some AU messages about its importance throughout the poll, that number jumped 11 points, hitting 71 percent (only 6 percent said protecting separation was not important).

You know how good news becomes so much better when you have people to share it with whom you know will be as happy about it as you are? Well, you are those people for us. We know you will celebrate or mourn alongside us no matter what the news, and believe me when I tell you how much all of us at AU appreciate that.

So please, take a moment to pause with us and enjoy these poll results. We all deserve it.

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.