Muddled Message: Most Americans Support The First Amendment, But Many Remain Confused

It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting less freedom. Even Religious Right zealots who whine about church-state separation usually say they want more freedom – granted, it’s their freedom to tell you how to live your life.

I’ve got some good news and some bad news to deliver. Since it’s Friday, I’m going to give you the good news first.

A poll released this week by the First Amendment Center found that 64 percent of Americans believe the First Amendment does not go too far in protecting freedom. The survey consisted of 1,006 responses, and we’re glad to see almost two-thirds of those people support this critical aspect of our legal system.

The data also showed strong public support for reasonable requirements for religious groups that receive government funding. Sixty-two percent of Americans agree that if a religiously affiliated organization gets government money, then the group can be required to offer healthcare benefits for same-sex partners of employees.

The survey even found that 52 percent of Americans believe that businesses providing wedding services should be required to serve same-sex couples regardless of how the business’ owners feel about same-sex marriage. (It’s fun to note that 61 percent of Catholics agree as well; get the smelling salts for Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Bishop William Lori.)

That’s all good news. If a religious group takes taxpayer dollars, it ought to play by the rules and serve all the taxpayers, including legally married gay couples. And if a business is plying its trade in the public marketplace, it ought to abide by civil rights laws and reject discrimination.

But there’s also some bad news in the recent poll.

Thirty-four percent of respondents said the First Amendment actually goes too far in the protections it promises. That is a jump of 13 percent from 2012, and it is the single-highest year-to-year increase in that category since the survey was first conducted in 1997.

That response is pretty baffling, really, and it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting less freedom. Even Religious Right zealots who whine about church-state separation usually say they want more freedom – granted, it’s their freedom to tell you how to live your life.

“It’s unsettling to see a third of Americans view the First Amendment as providing too much liberty,” said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, in a statement. “This underscores the need for more First Amendment education.”

We agree. That’s why Americans United works so hard to educate the public on the importance of the First Amendment, and the liberties our Constitution guarantees for all Americans.

Unfortunately, it seems we still have a lot of work to do on that front.

For one thing, we need to rebut the persistent myth that America is a “Christian nation.” The First Amendment Center survey found that 51 percent of respondents believe that the U.S. Constitution actually establishes the United States as Christian. Only 25 percent disagreed.

Unsurprisingly, the numbers are even worse among those who identify as conservative or evangelical/born-again. Sixty-seven percent of conservatives said the Constitution establishes America as a “Christian Nation,” as did 71 percent of evangelicals and born-again Christians.

Americans United has been fighting this misconception for years, and we know that it’s a long battle. Fortunately there are some great resources on our website explaining why America wasn’t founded to promote any one religious belief. You can check them out here and here.

Ultimately it’s great to see most Americans value the freedoms they have, but it’s disconcerting to see that so many are clueless about the intent of the Founding Fathers. That’s why we must keep fighting for true religious freedom and a strong First Amendment.