Most favor more leeway for students’ faith
WASHINGTON — A clear majority of Americans — even those who don’t practice a particular faith — say public school students should have more latitude to express their religious faith in school, according to the latest State of the First Amendment poll conducted by the First Amendment Center.
The national survey, conducted between July 28 and Aug. 6, found:
- 75% of those polled said students should be able to speak about their faith at public school events, with support not only from those who identified themselves with particular faiths but also from 52% of those who said they don’t practice religion.
- 80% think student speakers should be allowed to offer a prayer during public school events, again with support from 59% of those who said they don’t practice religion.
Although about two-thirds of survey respondents (66%) endorsed the general idea that the First Amendment requires a clear separation of church and state, the survey also found:
- 76% support the proclaiming of a National Day of Prayer by Congress or the president, with that endorsement strongest among Protestants and Catholics.
- 53% said the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation, in a result similar to what was found in a 2008 survey by the First Amendment Center.
- 60% of Protestants said a candidate’s affiliation was important in their voting choice, as compared with 44% of Catholics and just 17% of those not practicing a religion.
“Clearly most Americans want to keep government out of religion, but they don’t see an expression of faith by a student at a public school event as a violation of the separation of church and state,” said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center. “Public school students actually enjoy quite a bit of religious freedom on school grounds, but high-profile battles over commencement ceremonies and other schoolwide events have left the opposite impression.”
The survey also found that 61% of respondents said the freedom to worship “applies to all religious groups regardless of how extreme their views are,” while 28% said freedom to worship never was intended to apply to groups “most people would consider fringe or extreme.” The results are similar to those in a 2008 First Amendment Center survey.
“Americans clearly defend individual expression of religious views, but fewer are willing to extend the First Amendment’s protection to faiths that they see as far removed from their own,” said Gene Policinski, vice president of the First Amendment Center. “I’m troubled that nearly three in 10 people in a nation founded in part by ancestors who fled countries where their faiths at the time were viewed as ‘fringe or extreme’ are not willing to defend religious liberty for other faiths in similar circumstances today.”
Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, said, “Although I'm encouraged that 66% of the American people agree that the First Amendment clearly separates church from state, I find it discouraging that a majority, 53%, mistakenly believe that the Constitution somehow 'establishes a Christian nation.' When the Framers wrote the First Amendment, 'no establishment' meant no religion — Christian or otherwise — could be established under our Constitution.”
The nationwide telephone survey of 1,003 adults was conducted July 28 to Aug. 6 by the national polling firm The Pert Group, directed by Kenneth Dautrich. Surveys on the State of the First Amendment have been conducted by the First Amendment Center since 1997, and include polling throughout the year on First Amendment issues and attitudes by The Pert Group and Gallup.
The First Amendment Center supports the First Amendment and builds understanding of its core freedoms through education, information and entertainment. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the government.
The center, with offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and in Washington, D.C., is an operating program of the Freedom Forum and is associated with the Newseum and the Diversity Institute. Its offices on the Vanderbilt campus are located in the John Seigenthaler Center; and in Washington, at the Newseum. The center’s programs provide education and information to the public and groups including First Amendment scholars and experts, educators, government policymakers, legal experts and students. The center is nonpartisan and does not lobby or litigate.