Survey: Majority of Americans support religious expression in the public square

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Most Americans believe it should be legal to have voluntary student-led prayers at public school events, display the Ten Commandments inside a court building and allow religious displays on city-owned property, according to an Ellison Research survey.

As part of the survey, Phoenix-based Ellison presented a number of scenarios to a representative sample of 1,007 American adults and asked whether various modes of religious expression generally should or should not be legal in the United States.

Results indicated that 90 percent said the law should support religious groups renting public property, such as a public school gym or a library room; 89 percent said it should be legal for a public school teacher to permit a moment of silence for prayer or contemplation for all students during class time; and 88 percent believe it should be legal for public school teachers to wear religious symbols, such as a Star of David or a cross, during class time.

Ellison also found that 87 percent believe voluntary student-led prayers at public school events, such as football games or graduation ceremonies, should be legal; 83 percent believe the display of a nativity scene on city property, such as city hall, should be legal; and 79 percent said it should be legal to display a copy of the Ten Commandments inside a court building.


Religious and individual freedoms
Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, said the study can be seen as being about individual freedoms rather than just exclusively about religion.

"The majority feels those who don't wish to listen to a prayer at graduation or see the Ten Commandments in a court building have the right to ignore these things but not the right to stop others from expressing themselves."

Some of the scenarios are positioned in the mainstream media as issues championed by evangelical Christians, but Ellison said that is only part of the truth.

Evangelicals are significantly more likely than other Americans to believe most of the scenarios should be legal in the United States today, but non-evangelicals usually have the same perspective as evangelicals—just with majorities that are not as strong.

For instance, while 97 percent of evangelicals believe it should be legal for the Ten Commandments to be displayed inside court buildings, 77 percent of non-evangelicals also believe it should be legal.


Stereotypes unfounded
What may be most surprising is when the scenarios are viewed according to political affiliations and beliefs. Ninety-five percent of those who describe themselves as politically conservative believe voluntary student-led prayers at public school events should be legal. The same perspective is held by 90 percent of self-described moderates and even 73 percent of those who call themselves liberal.

Eighty-eight percent of conservatives believe nativity scenes on city property should be legal, meanwhile, as do 88 percent of moderates and 70 percent of liberals.

In addition, the picture doesn't change when party affiliation is substituted for political viewpoint.

Sellers said the research shows that the labels placed on people often don't accurately define who they are and what they believe.

"There's too often a stereotype in today's world that one side—be they defined as churchgoers, conservatives, the religious right, Republicans, evangelicals or whatever—want to turn the U.S. into a theocracy or shove religion down everyone's throats, while the other side—again, be they called Democrats, the non-religious, liberals or the unchurched—are anti-religion and fighting to make this a purely secular society," Sellers said.

"On most of these issues, these different groups have a lot more in common than the stereotypes would suggest. Most people simply support the right to individual religious expression, even if another person may not like that expression."

Sellers also cautioned that the findings from the study do not say Americans support individual rights and freedoms at all costs.

"This research is not a legal document with exact definitions of individual cases, but a generalized idea of what Americans believe," Sellers said. "Because people believe in a teacher's right to wear a religious symbol does not necessarily mean that would apply no matter what the symbol, how it's displayed, etc.

"It means in general, they believe teachers should have that right of personal expression. But Americans also take into consideration how their own freedoms impact others. For instance, one-third feel a landlord should have the right to do with his property what he wishes, while two-thirds disagree if that means a homosexual couple loses the right of equal access to housing."


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