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By Stephanie Wang
A majority of Hoosiers say it’s more important to protect the civil rights of all individuals than the religious freedom of people who object to providing services to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, according to an IndyStar poll conducted with Ball State University.
About 54 percent of respondents said civil rights are more important in such situations, while 34 percent said religious freedom should have priority.
The poll results shine a light on the contentious question at the heart of Indiana’s strident political debate: When there’s conflict, whose rights win? And who has to lose?
The question has been asked nationally, too, to mixed results.
Lawmakers say they can strike a balance and find compromise. Senate Republicans recently proposed legislation to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in Indiana’s civil rights law, with some religious exemptions.
But some people on both sides of the issue don’t see any middle ground. Preserving religious liberty would come at the expense of LGBT rights, one side worries, while the other fears that granting LGBT rights would strip religious rights.
The IndyStar poll, conducted with Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs, also correlated frequent church attendance with opposition to proposed legislation to extend civil rights — unsurprisingly highlighting the tensions around this issue from Indiana’s most religious residents.
The statewide poll surveyed 600 adults living in Indiana. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points. The statewide survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International and analyzed by the Bowen Center.
About a quarter of respondents said their religious beliefs strongly conflict with homosexuality. Another 13 percent reported a little conflict. But they were outweighed by a majority of respondents, 56 percent, who said no conflict existed with their beliefs.
Still: What happens when the two sets of rights collide?
There’s no clear answer yet.
In July, on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, an Associated Press-GfK poll reported a majority of respondents (56 percent) favoring religious liberties over gay rights (39 percent) if there’s conflict.
In September, an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported 74 percent of respondents felt the need to treat everyone equally under the law won out, over the 19 percent who chose shielding someone’s religious beliefs.
It has been similarly difficult to pin down public opinion on whether people feel a business owner should receive an exemption from providing wedding services to a same-sex couple when citing religious objections.
“Attitudes have been changing so quickly on the question of LGBT rights, that it’s not unusual to see some fluidity in the numbers,” said Joseph Losco, director of the Bowen Center.
He pointed to similar volatility in polling on same-sex marriage when it was first raised as a political issue, until public opinion ultimately shifted in favor of it.
But Ron Johnson Jr., executive director of the Indiana Pastors Alliance, questioned the wording of the polls to ask about “protecting civil rights for all individuals.”
“Of course it should be the same for all,” he said. “We believe in equal rights under the law.”
Instead, he posited: What if you asked, “Should religious liberty be protected for all?”
Johnson refutes the idea of framing this as a civil rights question. He contends that giving protected class status to sexual orientation and gender identity instead creates special rights for LGBT people.
Arthur Farnsley, associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said religious thinking on LGBT rights will probably continue to evolve.
“It seems likely that gradually, over decades, even the conservative religious view of this will become more accommodating toward individual rights, because that is precisely what happened with women and with racial minorities,” he said.
Citing women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement, Farnsley said America has moved toward protecting individual rights over traditional standards.
“You can still have those (traditional standards),” he said, “but you can’t use those to try to keep diverse people from having their own individual freedom.”
The oft-cited example is an evangelical Christian who runs a bakery and is asked to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Is the business owner allowed to object to the request because of deeply held religious beliefs that oppose same-sex marriage?
What the debate boils down to, Farnsley said, is what is public, and what is private?
Is a bakery public? Can your beliefs follow you into the public realm?
“The question here is not whether people still have a right to freely exercise their religion. It really isn’t,” Farnsley said. “It’s whether whom you serve in your bakery constitutes your ability to freely exercise that right. Nobody is saying to you, you can’t still be a conservative Christian, or you can’t be Muslim, or you can’t be Jewish. This is about where your free exercise ends and public rights begin.”
But what many deeply religious people fear is losing ground. If they cede here, will the next battleground become their homes and their churches?
Some worry that kind of fear rhetoric is driving the debate in the wrong way and clouds the arguments for the LGBT protections at question.
In those protections, more than wedding cake is at stake, argued Danyelle Ditmer, faith coordinator for LGBT rights advocacy group Freedom Indiana. Public services cover the oft-cited bakeries, but they also include medical services. The protections also would guard against discrimination where you work and where you live.
“For me, you offer those services with the love of Christ in your heart, and serve the people who are there and serve them well,” she said. “I just don’t think religion loses anything by offering public services.”
Under the legislation pending in the Indiana General Assembly, religious organizations and some small businesses that provide wedding services would be exempted from following LGBT nondiscrimination laws.
But who’s included in those exemptions — and who isn’t — will likely become a focal point of the debate, particularly as conservative groups outside the definition of a religious organization try to make a case for additional protections because they’re driven by deeply held fundamental Christian beliefs.
IndyStar poll results released last week showed similar support for LGBT rights, with 50 percent of respondents in favor of an expansion of the state civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In opposition were 35 percent. But LGBT rights gained even more support when questions elaborated on the specific protections that would be offered under the law.
Call Star reporter Stephanie Wang at (317) 444-6184. Follow her on Twitter: @stephaniewang.
IndyStar poll results
Which is more important to you?
Protecting religious freedom for those individuals who choose not to provide services to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, or transgender individuals: 33.5%
Protecting the civil rights for all individuals seeking access to services regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity 54.1%
Don’t know/Refused 12.4%
Thinking about your own religious beliefs, do you personally feel that there is a conflict between your religious beliefs and homosexuality, or not?
Yes, a lot of conflict: 24.5%
Yes, a little conflict: 12.7%
No, no conflict: 55.8%
Don’t know/Refused 7%
Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the Civil Rights Act in Indiana that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity?
Don’t know/Refused: 14.7%
Results broken down by church attendance
Frequent churchgoers (39 percent of respondents)
Don’t know/refuse 18.6%
Sometime churchgoers (32.4 percent of respondents)
Don’t know/refuse 8.7%
Seldom or never attend church (28.6% of respondents)
Don’t know refuse 11.2%
About the poll
The IndyStar poll, with the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University, surveyed 600 adults living in Indiana via landline or cell phone and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points. The statewide survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from Nov. 30 to Dec. 9. Princeton Survey Research, founded in 1989, has provided research for the Pew Research Center, NBC News and American Express, among many others. The Bowen Center has provided analysis of statewide polls since 2007.SHARE THIS STORY