Reuters poll: Majority says businesses shouldn't have the right to refuse service based on religious beliefs

Of fully 40 different demographic subgroups measured, the only one in which more people think businesses should have that right than shouldn’t is Republicans. And even among Republicans, it’s only a plurality who say so. There were no clear majorities for the right to refuse service on religious grounds among any group tested.

Note the scope of the question, though. Reuters didn’t ask specifically about refusing to serve a gay wedding. They asked very broadly about refusing services generally to a particular class of people. Which, unless I missed something somewhere, none of the Christian-run business owners who have challenged antidiscrimination laws thus far are accused of doing.

The poll found solid opposition to allowing businesses to refuse services or refuse to hire people or groups based on religious beliefs.

Fifty-four percent said it was wrong for businesses to refuse services, while 28 percent said they should have that right. And 55 percent said businesses should not have the right to refuse to hire certain people or groups based on the employer’s religious beliefs, while 27 percent said businesses should have the right.

A lot may come down to how the poll question here is phrased (but then, doesn’t it always). Mention the First Amendment and emphasize that businesses face penalties imposed by the state for refusing service on religious grounds and the numbers start to shift:

According to a March edition of the Marist poll, 54 percent of Americans agreed with  “allowing First Amendment religious liberty protection or exemptions for faith based organizations and individuals even when it conflicts with government laws.” By a two-point margin, 47-45, even a plurality of Democratic voters agreed with that.

The margins were even larger in opposition to laws that proposed “penalties or fines for individuals who refuse to provide wedding-related services to same sex couples even if their refusal is based on their religious beliefs.” No Democrat is seriously proposing this; the nearest cultural analogue may be the story of Memories Pizza, the Indiana shop whose owner said that he would decline to provide pies to gay weddings, and saw its Yelp! page firebombed with angry comments. (The popularity of delivery pizza at gay wedding ceremonials is well known.) Still, according to Marist, Americans oppose penalties on businesses like Memories by a 65-31 margin. The margin among Democrats: 62-34 against.

It may be that Americans support the general principle that no one should withhold service on religious grounds but start to get squeamish once you introduce the possibility of state sanction. It may also be that refining the question so that it stresses refusing service for gay weddings specifically rather than to all gay customers (i.e. the policy at Memories Pizza) would make the public more comfortable with granting an antidiscrimination exemption for religious beliefs. Although, in that case, the left would surely counter that that doesn’t solve their problem with Indiana’s RFRA statute. In theory, if Memories Pizza changed their policy to refuse service to gays altogether, citing religious convictions for doing so, RFRA would provide them with a defense in court. Probably not a winning one, but still.

Oh, by the way: When Reuters asked people which institution should be responsible for shaping the law on gay marriage, a plurality of 34 percent said … the Supreme Court. Twenty-two percent said it should be by popular referendum, 11 percent said it should be state legislatures, and eight percent said it should be Congress. It strikes me as odd, and not in a good way, that support for letting democratic channels handle this can’t get to 51 percent overall. But maybe that’s just a matter of conditioning at this point. Voters know that courts have ruled on this issue repeatedly and they know that it’ll be before the Supreme Court soon; strong supporters of SSM with even a passing familiarity with constitutional law also know that a SCOTUS decision will lock in the legality of gay marriage in a way that no democratic statute will. Maybe that explains the result.