November 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Americans recognize the importance of supporting the separation of church and state, and many of them want political candidates to back the principle.

That’s a key finding from a new poll Americans United released last month. Sixty percent of poll respondents said protecting the separation of religion and government is either one of the most important things to them personally or very important. Only 9 percent said it was not too important.

Furthermore, nearly half of likely voters in 2020 – 47 percent – say they would be more likely to support a candidate who announced support for church-state separation. Only 11 percent say backing separation would make them less likely to support a candidate.

Support for pro-separation candidates was shared in all parts of the country – even in the Bible Belt South. Looking at specific sub-groups, support for separation-friendly candidates was highest among men with college degrees and people who said they never attend religious services.  

The poll, conducted in July for Americans United by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, one of the nation’s most respected and most accurate polling firms, surveyed 2,002 self-identified likely 2020 voters. To ensure an accurate cross-section of voters, a mix of respondents from various racial, age and religious groups were included, and poll questions were offered in English and Spanish.

Aside from assessing Americans’ views on candidates’ support for church-state separation, the poll also sought to determine which church-state issues voters find most compelling.

The answer here was clear: Americans are concerned about “religious freedom” being used as an excuse to discriminate in employment and block access to health care.

That issue has been the news a lot lately, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it topped the list. Participants were asked to name some issues they believe should be a top priority for Americans United. The top three were all related to discrimination and denials of medical care and services. They are: ensuring that businesses, employers and health care providers can’t use religion as a reason to discriminate; ensuring taxpayer-funded organizations can’t discriminate in who they hire based on the applicant’s religion; and ensuring that religion is not used to deny women access to birth control.

Poll participants seem especially concerned about religious interference in health care. Ensuring that religion is not used to discriminate and deny access to health care, especially birth control, resonated across all sub-groups in the poll; it was especially popular among those poll participants who said they are non-religious.

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

The poll found that respondents like the approach of tying church-state separation and religious freedom back to founding principles and reminding everyone that church-state separation is uniquely American, a key feature of the U.S. Constitution. While they support religious freedom as a historic principle, respondents also said they believe it should not be used to harm others.

The poll also indicates that education about church-state issues is key. Participants were also exposed to some messages from Americans United about the threats church-state separation faces. Prior to reading this material, 57 percent 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, that number jumped by 11 points, hitting 71 percent. (Only 6 percent said protecting separation was not important.)

Americans United’s leadership team, led by President and CEO Rachel Laser, will continue to analyze the poll results as the organization goes forward. For more on Laser’s take on the poll, please see her column on page 23 of this issue of Church & State.