Beliefs About Discrimination in America Color Views of Supreme Court’s Masterpiece

This week, the Supreme Court released its much anticipated decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Civil Rights Commission, narrowly ruling for the plaintiffs and spurring both sides in the debate over LGBTQ rights to claim larger victories than justified by the decision.  While LGBTQ rights were clearly being tested, beliefs about discrimination in America lurk just below the surface of responses to the decision — and those beliefs vary markedly among partisans.

The case involved a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple on the grounds that it violated his religious beliefs. While the high court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had been too heavy handed, and even hostile, towards the baker’s faith, it did not rule that religious freedom created a right to discriminate. 

Pro-religious freedom forces lauded the decision for its affirmation of religious freedom, while LGBTQ rights advocates noted what the narrowly tailored decision didn’t do: create a right to discriminate based on religious beliefs, or challenge the authority of Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that cemented the right to gay marriage.

In Texas, the issue of the depth and scope of religious freedom has been a long simmering one, with state leaders recently pressing the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider a case against Houston’s extension of same-sex marriage benefits after the court had previously refused to take the case up. The most recently concluded legislative session featured a number of bills aimed at protecting religious liberty, often seemingly at the expense of other liberties or protections.

University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling has been following the growing conflict between religious rights and minority protections for a number of years now with numerous survey items intended to assess the value and meaning that Texans’ place on the guaranteed freedoms of religious expression, but also in light of broader cultural attitudes about Christianity’s place in public life.

Most directly related to the Supreme Court decision handed down this week, the UT/TT poll asked in June of 2015 whether Texans thought that “businesses should be allowed to refuse services to gays and lesbians for religious reasons,” or whether they thought “that businesses should be required to provide services to gays and lesbians?” Overall, a slight plurality of Texans (45 percent) said that businesses should be required to provide services, with 41 percent saying that they should be allowed to refuse services. As one might expect, 73 percent of Democrats thought that businesses should be required to provide services while 64 percent of Republicans thought the opposite.

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Should be allowed to refuse services41%
Should be required to provide services45%
Don't know/No opinion14%

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Should be allowed to refuse services14%36%64%
Should be required to provide services73%46%23%
Don't know/No opinion13%19%13%

The 2017 Legislative Session saw a notable embrace of laws intending to enshrine protections for religious adherents in statute, and when asked in June 2017 whether “a sincerely held religious belief is a legitimate reason to exempt someone from laws designed to prevent discrimination," a slight majority of Texans disagreed (51 percent), with only 30 percent agreeing. But yet again, the same partisan dynamic emerged, with 68 percent of Democrats disagreeing compared to a plurality of Republicans (45 percent) who expressed agreement. Maybe more important for the current partisan politics of Texas, a majority of Tea Party Republicans (57 percent) agreed that sincerely held religious beliefs constituted a valid reason to exempt someone from anti-discrimination laws.

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Don't know/no opinion19%

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Don't know/no opinion18%26%20%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Don't know/no opinion13%20%15%

While it may seem odd to some that such a large share of Texans hold the opinion that their religious beliefs should allow for discrimination against other groups, these opinions make more sense when looked at in the context of beliefs about discrimination in society – particularly about discrimination against Christians. In February 2018 polling, 40 percent of Texans said that Christians faced either “A lot” or “Some” discrimination in America today, compared to 68 percent who said the same of gays and lesbians. But at the same time, only 52 percent of Republicans said that gays and lesbians face “A lot” (15 percent) or “Some” (37 percent) discrimination, compared to 72 percent who said the same of Christians (38 percent saying “A lot,” 34 percent saying “some”).

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A lot of discrimination23%
Not very much23%
None at all22%
Don't know/no opinion4%

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A lot of discrimination35%
Not very much19%
None at all7%
Don't know/no opinion6%

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A lot of discrimination8%25%38%
Not very much30%19%17%
None at all38%16%8%
Don't know/no opinion5%5%4%

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A lot of discrimination58%30%15%
Not very much6%21%31%
None at all3%10%11%
Don't know/no opinion4%8%7%

The responses of partisans and public figures to Masterpiece Cakeshop gain more depth in light of these results. For those unhappy with the decision, emphasizing the carefully delineated limitation to the scope of the decision is in line with their preferences. Those who present the decision as a victory for “religious liberty” and the idea that government should never discriminate against religious faith – to paraphrase Senator Ted Cruz’s widely circulated Tweet in response to it – do so in the context of a widespread belief among Republicans that Christians are the most discriminated group in the country. 

The clear cultural shift toward wider public acceptance of LGBTQ rights, so evident in public attitudes, practices, and legal protections over the last decade, has taken place among a less widespread but evident surge in defensiveness among the groups least likely to embrace those shifts – and a sense of besiegement that leads them to welcome any signs of relief.