SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine learning your city government blocked construction of a Christian church, expressing concern about the religion's extreme beliefs.
You'd probably be outraged, right? You might complain, protest and tell anyone who would listen about America's nonnegotiable religious freedom rights.
But what if the house of worship was a mosque? Would you care as much?
Religious freedom laws haven't changed in the two scenarios, but if you like Christians more than Muslims, your reaction probably has. A growing body of research shows that Americans' beliefs about religious freedom shift depending on the faith group in need of protection.
"What Americans believe about a religious group matters for whether they believe said group's religious freedom rights have been violated," write the co-authors of a new survey dealing with building permits for houses of worship.
This finding is troubling, even if it's not surprising, said Logan Strother, one of the survey's co-authors.
"Rights are always described as universal, fundamental and human. But what our research is showing is that … many people's ideas about rights depend on their attitudes about the group that's benefitting from them," he said.
Researchers like Strother don't expect to end in-group favoritism by exposing it. But they do hope to inspire some soul-searching.
"I would love people to examine closely what they believe about the nature of rights in the United States. Do they sincerely believe (rights) apply to someone they find despicable? If they do, we'll be OK," said Daniel Bennett, Strother's co-author.
What the research says
Strother and Bennett's survey is the most recent look at Americans' fickle approach to religious freedom. Over the past six months, research has shown that people's religious backgrounds, relationship to faiths they don't practice and political affiliation affect their views.
"The public is polarized on these questions of religious liberty," said Jeremiah Castle, who teaches American government, political behavior and research methods at Central Michigan University. He offered data to back up this claim in a December article for the journal American Politics Research.
Castle found that around 40 percent of the public holds a "polarized view" — that is, they sympathize with only one side of a debate — on birth control coverage, bathroom laws affecting the transgender community or the right of religious business owners to refuse service to LGBT customers, in some of today's top religious freedom debates.
"Religious tradition, religious commitment and partisanship are all important factors in predicting or explaining that polarization," he said.
In other words, Americans' personal religious beliefs and habits, as well as their political interests, influence their position on religious freedom debates.
Bennett and Strother's work adds another item, feelings about a faith group, to this list.
In their survey, respondents were told that city officials had blocked either a generic house of worship, an evangelical Christian church or an Islamic mosque and then asked if they supported the decision. The researchers compared responses to each type of structure and then looked at how attitudes toward each faith group affected results.
"If you felt more warmly toward one (faith group) than another, it was likely to influence your beliefs" about the scenario, said Bennett, who is an assistant professor of political science at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
Nearly all respondents who felt more warmly toward Muslims than evangelical Christians felt the government violated religious freedom protections by blocking construction of a mosque. However, among respondents who felt more warmly toward Christians, only around 40 percent opposed city officials' decision to block the mosque.
Andrew Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, is also working on an ongoing project about what influences people's relationship to religious freedom.
In one of his initial surveys, he explored how subtle differences in the way a rights violation is presented affect people's reaction. Respondents read about Muslim or Hindu truck drivers who had to choose between transporting beer, which would violate their religious beliefs, or losing their jobs. They then learned that either a prominent liberal or conservative law firm was defending the truck drivers in court.
Lewis found that Democratic respondents were more supportive of the religious freedom claims when they were told a liberal law firm represented the drivers. Shifts were less pronounced among Republican respondents.
"The real kicker was that Democrats were less opposed to (religious freedom-related) exemptions for conservative Christians after exposure to religious freedom claims by Hindus or Muslims," Lewis said.
Why consistency matters
All of this research shows that religious freedom rights aren't inalienable, at least in the court of public opinion, experts said. People care more about protecting the faith groups they like and supporting members of their political party than they do about consistency.
That shouldn't be surprising, noted Strother, an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University.
"We've known for a long time that group attitudes powerfully inform public opinion," he said. "People by nature have a strong group orientation."
Even so, recent surveys are troubling. Human rights are strongest when they're universally applied, said Katherine Franke, a professor of law, gender and sexuality studies at Columbia University.
"We need to stand up for people we don't agree with because the principle at stake affects us all," she said.
Failing to defend less popular faith groups can backfire on more powerful groups in the future, Bennett noted. When government officials see they can prevent the construction of a new mosque without pushback, they may be empowered to block a Christian church, too.
"As soon as you limit religious freedom rights of one group, your own rights are in jeopardy," he said.
Additionally, supporting only those religious claims that benefit members of your group narrows the pool of people willing to listen to your arguments, Lewis said.
His research showed that Democrats become more receptive to the religious freedom claims of conservative Christians when they're primed to think about claims made by minority faith groups. Christians should keep that in mind, he noted.
"If conservative Christians were supporting religious freedom inclusively, they'd have more ammunition to make their own public arguments," Lewis said.
Improving today's debates
It will likely take more than a few studies to change how Americans approach religious freedom, Franke said. There's still a lot of confusion about what this right guarantees, and cultural and political factors complicate efforts to address it.
"I think average Americans don't really know what the free exercise of religion means," she said. "There are several well-funded advocacy organizations pushing a radical interpretation" that only benefits them.
America is also becoming more religiously diverse, and the political environment is growing more polarized. In light of these trends, some faith groups feel they need to look out for themselves, even at the expense of other believers, Lewis said.35 comments on this story
"People think the other side will never respect their religious freedom claims," he said.
But Lewis and other researchers still believe their recent studies benefit more than their careers. They think showing how in-group biases affect religious freedom debates will change some hearts.
"Ideally, this will spark conversations. That is the hope," Strother said.
All Americans should embrace a more inclusive approach to religious freedom, Lewis said, adding, "That's how pluralistic societies can function best."