87% of Americans Say It’s Important to Protect Religious Liberty for Christians, Only 61% for Muslims

PHOTO CREDIT: Jacquelyn Martin/AP
PHOTO CREDIT: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Religious liberty is a key principle of American democracy, but public support for individuals’ right to exercise that freedom still varies by which religion they practice.

In a new poll, 82 percent of Americans say it’s very or extremely important for Christians to be allowed to practice freely, compared with 61 percent who say the same for Muslims. (For Jews, the figure is 72 percent; for Mormons, 67 percent; and for people with no religion, 63 percent.)

The gaps in part reflect the fact that the United States has always struggled to live up to the ideals in its Constitution. But they also raise the question of whether the relative success of America’s experiment with religious diversity can survive for future generations when 4 out of 10 don’t believe strongly in protecting the rights of all.

“On one hand, it’s heartening that a majority of American people understand that religious liberty is for everyone…, [but] the goal is to have enough in support of this arrangement that it actually works,” says Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington.

“If we lose the hearts and minds … on religious liberty, we lose what’s enabled us to live with these differences” and maintain peace better than most, if not all, other nations facing religious divides, he says.

The results may have been influenced by the timing of the poll, conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research between Dec. 10 and Dec. 13, not long after attacks in Paris and San Bernardino sparked rising anxiety about Islamic State terrorism. The same poll shows an increase over time in Americans’ concern that they will be the victim of a terrorist attack.

“These numbers seem to be part of a growing climate of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States,” Madihha Ahussain, an attorney for Muslim Advocates, a California-based civil rights group, told the Associated Press. “This climate of hatred has contributed to dozens of incidents of anti-Muslim violence in recent weeks.”

The poll’s new question on religious liberty yields “important data, but it’s also important to ask it in calmer times … to establish a trend,” says Jennifer Benz, deputy director of the AP-NORC Center.

The poll of 1,042 adults was conducted online and by phone using a sample designed to represent the US population. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

A slight majority of Americans – 55 percent – say the government is doing a somewhat or very good job at protecting the freedom of religion.

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SOURCE: Christian Science Monitor, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo