Business & Economy

Poll: A plurality of Americans support religious work exemptions—but only if not costly

A general view outside First Presbyterian Church
A general view outside First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Minnesota, on Oct. 23, 2022.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

In the 1960s, so-called “blue laws” were under attack for restricting freedom because they prevented people from working on Sundays. Since that time, work on Sunday — and other religious holidays — has proliferated.

Now the Supreme Court is poised to rule in Groff v. Dejoy on whether the government and possibly other employers can make work on religiously significant days a non-negotiable part of someone’s job description.

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s most recent Mood of the Nation poll, conducted May 12-18, finds that a slight plurality of Americans favor religious-based work exemptions for government employees, “but only if the cost and inconvenience are minimal.” In addition:

  • Thirty-two percent oppose work exemptions under all circumstances.

  • Only 1 in 5 Americans believe that religious work exemptions should be granted when doing so would impose major costs on the government.

Americans think government workers should only get low cost work exemptions
One in five Americans think the government should grant religious work exemptions, even if costs are high.
APM Research Lab

According to judicial scholar Michael Nelson, Director of Penn State’s Center for American Political Responsiveness, “a big trend in the Supreme Court's jurisprudence in recent years has been an increase in the protections religious Americans should receive. It's surprising to see such a gap between the attitudes of the people the court's rulings are protecting and the direction of the court's rulings.” 

This could have important implications according to Nelson: “If the Supreme Court should take the position that workers are entitled to work exemptions even when the employer or co-workers have to endure additional cost and inconvenience, it may further erode public support for the court.”

While the judicial branch — at least in theory — is non-political and insulated from popular opinion, it is nonetheless instructive to know what the broader public thinks of issues before the court and how those opinions differ across demographic and partisan lines.

Opinions on this topic do not vary dramatically along demographic lines, although there are some differences in support for religious work exemptions:

  • By generation, a higher proportion of those in the Baby Boom Generation (age 59 to 77) and Silent Generation (age 78 or older) oppose religious work exemptions than is the case among Generation Z (age 18 to 26; 37 percent compared to 25 percent).

  • A higher proportion of those with at least a college degree are opposed to religious work exemptions (40 percent), as compared to those with a high school degree or less (31 percent) and especially those with some college (26 percent).

Differences by gender, race and ethnicity, and income are generally within the survey’s margin of error, suggesting no notable differences in the patterns of support for religious work exemptions.

Opinions are even similar across political lines, with about one-in-five Democrats and Republicans each supporting religious work exemptions even when costs to the government are high.

When Americans are grouped by expressly religious categories, some differences emerge. Surprisingly, however, support for unlimited religious-based work exemptions did not receive majority support from any religious demographic. Only 29 percent of Protestants expressed support for exemptions “even if the cost and inconvenience are high,” as did only 25 percent of those who identify as born-again or evangelical Christians, 27 percent of those who say religion is “very important” in their lives, and 27 percent of those who report praying several times per day.

While this survey cannot claim to represent the opinions of smaller religious groups, it does capture the opinions of 128 people who identify with religions other than the largest Christian denominations. Even among this amalgam of people, many of whom may celebrate holidays that fall outside of the Christian holidays often reflected as official work holidays, only about one-quarter support unfettered access to religious work exemptions.

Penn State’s Nelson noted, “It's surprising how consistent Americans' stances on this issue are regardless of their religiosity. I would have expected to see that people for whom religion is an important part of their life to be much more likely to think that government should accommodate them even when those accommodations are costly.”

That said, religious work exemptions receive somewhat less support among less religious groups. For example, 39 percent of those who say religion is “not at all” important to their lives and 39 percent of those who pray only seldom or never indicate that government workers should not receive religion-based work exemptions.

Note: Eric Plutzer, Ph.D., who directs Penn State’s Mood of the Nation Poll contributed to this reporting, including designing the survey. For a detailed report on the survey’s methodology, see https://www.apmresearchlab.org/motn/poll-religious-work-exemptions-groff-dejoy-scotus