Recent headlines based on a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) blared this frightful message. One in five Americans think the corner store should be able to bar Jews! Americans?! How can this be? This is a crisis!
Except, it isn’t.
It isn’t a crisis because it isn’t true. Nineteen percent of Americans do not think the local convenience store should bar Jews. Americans in massive numbers abhor such discrimination. Racism and discrimination at that level was banished half a century ago. Today, only a radical few hold such blatant discriminatory views. So where did this sensationalist number come from?
That 19% includes a growing number of Americans who support the right of religious people to refuse to support messages against their beliefs. This could be a Jewish billboard maker refusing to produce the message “Jesus Saves.” It can be a Muslim artist refusing to paint a person’s portrait against his faith. It can even be a refusal to craft a cake.
In 2012, two men entered the Denver store of expert baker Jack Phillips and asked him to bake a cake for their wedding. Phillips told them that his Christian faith did not allow him to create such a cake. “I’ll make your birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.”
The couple sued Phillips for discrimination. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission agreed and acted to penalize Jack Phillips. This was closely followed in American media as it slowly marched through the courts. The case eventually made it to the US Supreme Court which ruled 7-2 in June 2018 that Phillips could not be forced to make a custom cake for a same-sex wedding. The Supreme Court specifically noted that Colorado’s work on the case showed “clear and impermissible hostility” to the “sincere religious beliefs” motivating Phillips.
The story sadly continued. Immediately after the end of the six year ordeal for Phillips, he was sued again. Phillips had this time refused to bake a cake that was blue on the outside and pink on the inside in celebration of a gender transition. Within four weeks of winning his case at the US Supreme Court, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that there was probable cause to bring Phillips to trial again. This time, he was not taking it lying down. Phillips counter-sued the state of Colorado for harassment. After seven total years, the much followed circus finally ended in March 2019 when Colorado and Philips agreed to drop the remaining cases.
In April 2019, the very next month, PRRI polled a thousand Americans. “Do you think that a small business owner in your state should be allowed to refuse to provide products or services to [Insert group], if doing so violates their religious beliefs?” 19% said yes for Jews. 30% for gays and lesbians.
Knowing some of the complexity behind the poll, our first reaction must be to demand that PRRI ask better questions. The wording of the question gives no leeway to make a simple clarification. Is the poll asking about specialized products that force the maker to take part in practices against their religion or about generic products where the supposed offense is who is being served? Are we talking a custom wedding cake or a loaf of bread?
The second reaction is to demand that our news providers take more care in their articles and headlines. The Times of Israel headline reprinted from the Jewish Telegraph Agency was among the most sensationalist: “19% of Americans say small businesses should be able to refuse service to Jews.” It’s almost a joke if it weren’t so wrong. Even reading the article didn’t help. It made no mention of the context Americans were seeing at the time of the poll and didn’t even clarify what a religious objection might look like.
There is certainly an ugly side to America and that small minority clearly contributed to these numbers. However, until a better poll is completed that can separate true religious objections from blatant discrimination, we can’t say much of anything. All I can tell from the bad data is that some Americans don’t think a Christian baker should be forced to write in icing that “The Messiah Will Come for the First Time Soon.” This Jew doesn’t think he should be forced to write that either.