BLOGWhy Words Matter: An Examination of a Recent Statistic

By James Arnold Posted on: | June 23, 2017

The headlines about a recent survey concerning freedom of conscience are quite telling. Here are a few examples:

  • Denying service to gays is unpopular even among faith groups, survey finds -USA Today
  • No major US religious groups approve refusing service to gays -Religion News Service
  • No major religious group in America supports refusal of service to LGBT people: poll -Salon

But what does all this really mean? And how accurate are these statements? Let's take a look.

USA Today references an ADF case in their story on the poll. Here's how they frame the issue:

"The group found in a survey of 40,000 Americans that 61% of Americans oppose allowing businesses to deny services to gays and lesbians, though it has increasingly become a rallying cry of the religious right. The Supreme Court is still mulling whether to take the case of a Colorado baker who refuses on religious grounds to make cakes for same-sex couples."

Connecting these two sentences together is highly misleading. Why? Because it is not accurate to say that Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker USA Today references, "refuses [...] to make cakes for same-sex couples." The Religion News Service take includes the phrase "deny service to gay people based on religious beliefs."

Jack has been very clear: He objects to participating in a creative capacity in a same-sex wedding. He does not and has not denied service to LGBT citizens as a class. In fact, when approached by a same-sex couple and asked to design their wedding cake, he explicitly offered to sell them anything off the shelves in his store even though he couldn’t design a cake to celebrate their nuptials.

Let's take a look at the question the survey actually asked:

"Do you favor or oppose allowing a small business owner in your state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs?"

By framing the question around "refusal to provide products or services" generally, rather than an objection to a particular event, the question sets up the listener to oppose it.

In other words: This question isn't really about the cake and floral artists who happily served LGBT citizens but cannot, in the limited circumstance of a same-sex wedding, provide custom artistic creations. The way in which it has been reported, of course, ties the question to the cases of Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzman, but that connection is misleading.

A clearer question, if you wanted to find a way to survey Americans about their opinion on religious business owners like Jack Phillips, would be something like this:

"Do you favor or oppose allowing a small business owner to follow their religious convictions by declining to participate in or create art celebrating certain events, such as same-sex weddings, so long as that business owner otherwise serves gay and lesbian people?"

There would likely still be some who would say that small business owners must give up their religious convictions to function as business owners, but the question would at least be fair. More Americans would be likely to express support for the right of all religious individuals—in business or otherwise—to live out their beliefs without fear of government punishment. In fact, that was the case in a March 2015 Marist poll that dealt with this very issue.

The bottom line is that we should all pay attention just as much to the way poll questions are asked as we do to the poll results themselves.


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James Arnold

News and Research Manager

James Arnold manages and edits the Alliance Alert, a daily repository of news in all forms—written, spoken, or in video format.

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