Conservative media and Religious Right leaders and activists are touting a new poll that supposedly shows Americans “overwhelmingly” side with “religious liberty” over gay rights. The new poll, conducted by Fox News contributor Patrick Caddell, adopts right-wing framing that pits religious freedom and LGBT equality in conflict with each other. Even in that context, a majority agrees that both religious liberties and the rights of gays and lesbians are important, and that “there can be a common sense solution that both protects religious freedom and protects gay and lesbian couples from discrimination.”
Of course, religious liberty and LGBT equality can happily coexist, despite claims to the contrary from the Right, but anti-equality advocates touting the Caddell poll suggest that the “common sense solution” is a “truce” that would allow business owners to discriminate against gay people based on their religious beliefs. Anti-gay extremist Peter LaBarbera is arguing that the poll shows that people see a war on Christians coming out of the “homosexual activist movement” and he is urging Americans to push for repeal of existing “sexual orientation laws and gender identity laws.”
The Caddell poll, an online survey of 800 voters, asserts that more than two-thirds of Americans – 68% -- believe the government should not be able “to require by law a private citizen to provide a service or provide their private property for an event that is contrary to their religious beliefs.” More specifically, the poll claims that 82 percent of Americans supports the right of a photographer with religious objections to same-sex couples getting married to refuse to photograph a gay couple’s wedding.
Conservatives are complaining that the Caddell poll is being “ignored by the establishment media.” But there are some good reasons for that.
First, Caddell’s numbers are far out of line with other surveys that show Americans are uncomfortable with the can of worms that would be opened by allowing business owners to cite religion as a reason to opt out of laws that apply to everyone else. In an article in the Atlantic in June, Robert Jones of Public Religion Research Institute writes:
By a margin of nearly two to one, Americans oppose allowing a small business owner to refuse products or services to gay and lesbian people, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs (60 percent oppose, 34 percent favor). Most religious groups oppose these exemptions; white evangelical Protestants are the only religious group with majority support for these exemptions, and even among this group, support is only a bare majority (51 percent).
PRRI has also reported that white evangelical Protestants were the only religious group that gives majority support – and then only 51 percent – to so called “religious freedom” laws designed to protect business owners and others who do not want to serve LGBT people or couples.
By contrast, 59% of white mainline Protestants, 63% of non-white Protestants, and 64% of Catholics oppose allowing small business owners to refuse service to gay and lesbian people on religious grounds, as do nearly three-quarters (73%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll published in March of last year found that “nearly seven in 10 respondents say business should not be allowed to refuse service to gays,” even if that refusal if based on the owner’s religious beliefs.” And an earlier poll, a 2013 survey by Human Rights Campaign and Third Way, reported that when asked specifically about wedding-related services being provided by small businesses, “64% of voters were still opposed to new laws that would allow small businesses to deny wedding-related services based on their religious beliefs, compared to 31% in favor.”
Other polls show more of a split among Americans on the issue, but they too are far from the results Caddell reports. A Pew Research Center survey from last year found Americans about equally divided about whether businesses that provide wedding services should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds or whether they should be required to provide services. And an Associated Press-GfK poll from earlier this year found that while a slim majority of Americans said wedding-related businesses should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples, only 40 percent said businesses in general should be allowed to.
Another reason journalists might view the poll with skepticism may be Caddell himself. Caddell is a Fox News regular who is useful to right-wingers by virtue of the fact that he describes himself as a Democratic strategist who helped get Jimmy Carter elected. But he has long since acted as an advocate for the Right by trashing the Democratic Party as the “tool” of special interests and saying “the left doesn’t care about ordinary people.”
Last year, on Sean Hannity’s show, Caddell denounced President Barack Obama as “a raging narcissist who has no grip on reality” and accused Republicans of not opposing him strongly enough. Caddell reportedly helped identify people to appear in an anti-Obama “documentary” distributed by the right-wing group Citizens United.
New York Magazine recently reported that Caddell has been speaking to Donald Trump “almost every day” about his campaign.