Survey: Nebraskans Skeptical About Religious Freedom Laws

June 6, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

(Photo courtesy Greg Nathan University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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The Supreme Court ruled this week in a 7-2 decision, that a Colorado state commission was hostile towards a cake shop owner’s religious beliefs. But writing in the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy also reiterated protections for LGBT rights. Judicial experts have said this ruling didn't really get to potential LGBT discrimination, instead pushing that for another time.

State legislatures around the country have been crafting new laws that some believe are discriminatory against LGBT people. In Georgia, South Dakota and Tennessee bills have failed in legislatures. But in Oklahoma and Kansas, laws were signed approving legal protections to adoption agencies that refuse adoptions to LGBT people on the grounds of religious beliefs.

New research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows nearly two-thirds of Nebraskans oppose such laws. Brandon McDermott of NET News sat down with Emily Kazyak, associate professor of Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies and Kelsy Burke, assistant professor of Sociology at UNL. They analyzed responses from the survey.

Brandon McDermott, NET News: Emily, looking at your research, both sides the people opposing religious freedom laws and those supporting them stressed the importance of freedom and rights but they seem to have different ideas about who's rights are most important, why do you think that is?

Emily Kazyak, Sociologist, University Nebraska-Lincoln: We've been hearing a lot about how Americans are divided, but there's actually shared logic that fuels both sides of the debate. For those who support religious exemption laws, they focus on the right to operate your business without government intervention and according to your religious belief -- versus those who are opposed to religious exemption laws focus on the right to avoid discrimination and not be treated differently because of your sexual orientation.

So, the groups are making appeals to these widely shared American values of rights and freedom, but really have different ideas of whose rights they're focusing on and whose rights are most important.

McDermott: Kelsy, most Americans don't agree with creating laws denying services based on religious beliefs, but what do we see laws being passed in state legislatures around the country?

Kelsy Burke, Sociologist, University Nebraska-Lincoln: Nebraska mirrors national surveys that suggest the majority of respondents actually oppose business owners being able to refuse service to gays and lesbians, based on their religious beliefs. But we see these state enacted laws for religious exemption or religious freedom as reflecting what has happened since 2015 when the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage across the country – that these are now ways in which in particular religious conservatives can promote their own beliefs that may oppose gay rights, now that we have some federal laws that recognize them, via gay marriage.

Kazyak: Can I add there that in discussions of religious exemption laws, oftentimes there's a lot of focus on what he related services like a baker making a wedding cake for a same sex couple. But in fact, these bills have much broader implications. So in some cases excluding people from adoption, health care and public accommodations.

Burke: In fact, we see nationally that there is stronger support for wedding service providers to be able to deny services to gays and lesbians than to business owners more generally.

McDermott: Did the results of your study match what you thought going in about how Nebraska would compare with the rest of the country?

Kazyak: There's certainly a stereotype of Nebraska being a red state and being more conservative and having more conservative attitudes towards LGBT rights, but we researchers actually found that that is not the case. I've worked on some other research, that has looked at Nebraskans attitudes about employment nondiscrimination and marriage rights, adoption rights and in that work as well we found a similar thing that the majority of Nebraskans actually support LGBT rights.

McDermott: In an article you both wrote recently you said, “LGBT people are or arguably the underdog.” Why do you think that is?

Burke: We made this point because some of our finding where respondents draw from similar logics but come up with different conclusions when it comes to their opinions about religious freedom, suggests that there is sort of an even playing field that everybody is sort of sharing the same core values but then just come up with these different attitudes. It's important to emphasize that people have historically been denied rights that have long been granted to for example conservative Christians who are presumably heterosexual.

So for example, we see currently that there are 28 states that do not have any nondiscrimination laws when it comes to employment, so this means that a person could be not hired or fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There's also across the country now 21 states that have these religious exemption laws many of those do not have nondiscrimination laws. So, the states would lack laws protecting LGBT people.

McDermott: Emily, Kelsy, thanks for joining me.

Burke: Thanks for the opportunity

Kazyak: Thank you.