SALT LAKE CITY — Younger Americans stand out from older generations in a variety of ways, as a seemingly endless stream of commentators are happy to point out. They get married later and spend a lot of time on their smartphones. They eat too much avocado toast.
They are also less religious and more diverse, two factors that may help explain another trait associated with Americans under 30: They show less support for religious liberty, especially when it conflicts with other rights.
"Younger people now tend to be a little less religious, which makes them less sympathetic to religious freedom claims," said Michael Moreland, a professor of law and religion at Villanova University. "They also show a strong sense of concern about discrimination."
A variety of recent research backs up these conclusions, drawn from Moreland's campus observations. For example, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that Americans under 30 are more likely than their older counterparts to oppose faith-based exemptions for employers or wedding-related business owners.
These findings are problematic for the activists working to protect religious practice in the midst of a rapidly changing culture. High-profile legal or legislative victories matter less when the rising generation of leaders don't buy into them, experts said.
"We've seen evidence that younger Americans don't hold religious freedom in the same high esteem that generations before them have," said Roger Gannam of Liberty Counsel, one of several Christian law firms that are using the courts to shore up religious freedom protections. "We have our work cut out for us to educate them."
However, younger Americans say focusing on compromise would be a more effective way to shift their views on religious freedom. Years of winner-take-all conflicts over religious exemptions have soured young people on conscience rights, even as they express interest in protecting human rights around the world, said Kristen Beck, a University of Utah senior who just wrapped up an internship at the State Department.
"I interact with a lot of people who have very positive views of religion, and I have a very positive view, as well," she said. "I just think we have to figure out how to make the right to marry who you want and (the right) to express your religion work together somehow."
Religious affiliation matters
After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015, efforts to secure religious exemptions for businesses and individuals who object to the ruling became increasingly contentious. This fall, the high court will hear a case about whether small-business owners should be required to serve same-sex couples, even when their religious beliefs call them to condemn these weddings.
Around 6 in 10 younger Americans (59 percent) say wedding-related businesses should be required to serve same-sex couples. No other age group showed majority support for this view, Pew reported.
Additionally, three-quarters of adults ages 18 to 29 say employers with religious objections to birth control should still be required to provide contraceptive coverage, compared with 65 percent of adults between 50 and 64 and 59 percent of those 65 and older, Pew reported. The Supreme Court sided with employers in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., in 2014, and the ruling broadened exemptions to the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.
Americans under 30 also appeared willing to limit the scope of religious freedom protections in the Newseum Institute's 2017 State of the First Amendment survey, which explores views on free speech, the right to worship and other protections guaranteed by the Constitution.
While more than 60 percent of Americans over age 30 agreed that the freedom of worship applies to all religions, including those considered extreme or fringe, only half of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 (49.4 percent) felt the same, according to the survey.
Although this research didn't dive into what influenced people's opinions, young Americans' relationship to religious freedom is likely influenced by their relative detachment from institutional religion, experts said.
Pew's survey showed that religious "nones," or people who don't associate with a particular faith group, are notably less supportive of religious freedom protections than committed believers, said Greg Smith, Pew's associate director of research.
"I don't know that we can necessarily point to any one thing, but you see in the survey that there are fairly substantial differences by religious affiliation," he said.
Nearly two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated respondents (64 percent) said wedding-related businesses should serve same-sex couples, compared with 36 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 43 percent of white mainline Protestants, Pew reported.
More than one-third of people born between 1990 and 1996 (36 percent) are religiously unaffiliated, compared with 17 percent of baby boomers, or those born between 1946 and 1964, according to Pew. Younger Americans are driving the rise of the nones within the United States.
"Young people are substantially less religious than their elders," Smith said.
Discomfort with conflict
A lack of interest in traditional religious practice has disconnected some Americans under 30 from faith communities, making them less aware of what religious freedom is all about, Emily Hardman, president of Amicus Communications, told the Deseret News last month.
Around 6 in 10 millennials, or Americans born after 1980, say "religion is personal and should not play a significant role in society," she said, citing a 2015 survey from her organization.
Even faithful young people may have qualms about religious liberty, especially as it increasingly comes into conflict with other rights, such as nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community, said Daniel Bennett, an assistant professor of political science at John Brown University.
John Brown University is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, and it has a faith-driven educational mission. Many of its students identify as evangelical Christian and bring a deeper personal faith to campus than students at other schools.
"Students who are here maybe have thought more about religion than the typical college student," Bennett said. "They might be a little more sympathetic to religious rights."
But these students also have concerns about the reach of religious freedom protections. They've been raised in diverse communities and classrooms, and they worry about religion harming the LGBT community and other minority groups, he added.
"When you compare students here to other folks in the religious community, they fit into (the trends associated with) the younger generation," he said. "They grew up in a more pluralistic society and maybe they aren't as comfortable using religious freedom against others."
Bennett's assessment of his students resonates with Catherine Coffey, a 23-year-old who just entered her second year as a youth minister at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.
"My friends and I have grown up in a time period when people are more comfortable coming out (as gay.) A lot of us have friends that are gay and in committed relationships," she said. "When you have good and close friends who are gay or on birth control or who've had an abortion, it's harder to pick a line and stick with it" when it comes to religious freedom.
While not denying that many current college students and other younger Americans are nonreligious, Coffey said she knows many people her age who are committed to helping their faith communities grow and flourish. They just don't see victories in culture wars as the right goal to chase.
"Hot topics and social issues aren't foundational to our faith," she said.
Shifting the narrative
In response to recent research and their own observations about Americans under 30, religious liberty advocates are being more creative in their efforts to get young people interested in conscience rights.
Representatives of Christian conservative legal organizations, the law firms behind many recent high-profile religion-related court cases, recently told the Deseret News they've been taking on more diverse clients and leading educational programs to help younger Americans understand the value of religious freedom.
Religious freedom supporters should be intentional about how they describe this First Amendment right, linking it to the values that young people care about, such as individual freedom and fairness, said Shapri LoMaglio, the vice president for government relations and executive programs at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.
"How can we speak about religious freedom with people who are otherwise not inclined to support it? It's a lot like evangelism. It's meeting someone where they're at and answering their concerns," she said during her recent presentation at Brigham Young University's annual religious liberty conference.
Similarly, Beck's experience as an intern in the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom taught her to focus on human rights as a whole as she seeks to help fellow students understand the importance of religious freedom.
"The Office of International Religious Freedom is in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. You bring in issues like racial discrimination, human trafficking and women's rights as you (advocate for) religious freedom. It never stands on its own," she said.
Younger Americans will respond better when efforts to protect faith groups are done in partnership with protections for other, vulnerable groups, added Beck, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"If I am going to advocate for someone's religious belief and for their religious practice, I'm also going to advocate for someone's freedom to have a different sexual orientation or to not be discriminated against," she said.
Through her work with college administrators, LoMaglio has proposed a sort of public relations campaign that would separate religious freedom from culture-war issues. Amid efforts by LGBT activists to link conscience rights to discrimination, she wants to focus on the good that religious liberty can do.
"If we look at other countries where women or LGBT persons or religious minorities are treated quite badly, they can be examples of why" this value matters, she said.
Similarly, Moreland encourages people of faith concerned about this trend to help Americans under 30 understand how faith groups serve their communities. If young people recognize the value of religiously affiliated health care systems or food pantry programs, they may be more attentive when religious leaders ask for support.
"We have to articulate the great good that religion does in people's lives and the great good that religious institutions do in society," he said.
Churches should play to their strengths when it comes to building bridges to younger generations, highlighting their work with immigrants, refugees and other people in need, Coffey said.
"A lot of people look at church and say it's sexist or hates women. Those are the popular taglines," she said. "But if you look at people working on the front lines of crises and with some of the most vulnerable communities — churches are filled with people doing that good work. "