Refusing service to gays? Is pollster asking the right question? Journalists should inquire

Religion News Service, a national wire service for which I occasionally freelance, reports that no major U.S. religious group opposes refusing service to gays.

The lede from RNS:

(RNS) In no U.S. religious group does a majority think it’s acceptable for businesspeople to invoke their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays.
This finding from a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey is a first, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonprofit research group.
In a 2015 PRRI survey that asked the same question, more than half of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons approved of those who cited religious belief to deny service to LGBT customers.
But in the new 2016 survey, only 50 percent of white evangelical Protestants expressed such approval, as opposed to 56 percent the year before.
Mormons showed the second-highest rates of approval. About 42 percent of Mormons backed businesspeople who deny services in the latest survey, as opposed to the 58 percent who favored them the previous year.

RNS notes that the question asked by PRRI is this:

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?

Here's what I wonder: Is that the right question for the pollster to ask?

Moreover, would defenders of religious freedom propose an alternate wording? If so, might those voices be helpful in a story reporting on the poll results?

Regular readers know that framing — by pollsters and journalists — is a subject that we at GetReligion repeatedly have addressed:

As I said in the above 2015 post:

Here's the journalistic issue, related to framing: Is "deny service" or "refuse service" really the right way to describe what occurs when a baker declines to make a cake for a same-sex wedding?
Or does such wording favor one side of a debate pitting gay rights vs. religious freedom?

Greg Scott, vice president for media communications for the Alliance Defending Freedom, raised such questions in a 2015 email to a Los Angeles Times reporter:

There is a fundamental difference between “denying service to same-sex couples” (wording of the poll) and the actual issue — punishment of citizens who resist government compelled speech and expression mandates. Buying generic products and basic services is not the same thing as asking someone to create artistic works or expression to promote or celebrate an event. The question on the table is not whether a person should be denied the former class of marketplace transactions (they shouldn’t be), but if the government should have the power to threaten citizens for choosing to not communicate a creative message or participate in an event that violates their conscience. A government that has the power to tell you what you can’t say is bad enough. A government that tells you what you must say in order to avoid ruin is terrifying. ...
The clients ADF represents have served all people over the years they have been in business. Of note, Barronelle Stutzman, the floral artist in Washington, served for many years and befriended the man who ultimately sued her for the mere act of giving him a list of other florists who would be willing to help him celebrate his ceremony. So the idea that she “refused service based on sexual orientation” is ludicrous. She referred Rob Ingersoll because she is conscience-bound to live her life and mind her business in a way that honors Biblical teaching on marriage. The First Amendment has always protected that freedom. The insistence that recently-enacted local laws and ordinances trump constitutionally-affirmed liberty is upside down. The First Amendment is the preeminent civil right law of our nation. The Johnny-come-lately local laws and ordinances must yield when they conflict with the precious promise of liberty America was founded to fulfill. For Barronelle, that promise hangs by a thread. Not only is she facing the loss of these freedoms, but she could lose her family business, her home, and her life savings.

My journalistic point: There are passionate, informed arguments on both sides of this issue. It would be helpful, in my opinion, for news reports to do a better job reflecting them.

Please respect our Commenting Policy