Americans Approve of Public Displays of Religious Symbols

by Frank Newport

Majority of Americans favor displays of all religions, not just Christian

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Three separate Gallup Polls conducted over the last month confirm that 7 in 10 Americans approve of the display of a Ten Commandments monument in a public area. These results come on the heels of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's suspension for defying a federal judge's order to remove a granite Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery. Additional polling shows that Americans' attitudes are complex when it comes to the issue of the relationship between church and state. On the one hand, Americans clearly feel that religious symbols should be allowed in public places. However, the public finds the display of Christian symbols acceptable as long as symbols of all religions are displayed, and does not feel the presence of a Ten Commandments monument sends a message that the justice system shows special consideration to Jews and Christians.

The Ten Commandments Issue

The issue of the relationship between church and state has been prominent in the news in recent weeks because of the Ten Commandments controversy in Alabama. Moore made the Ten Commandments the centerpiece of his campaign while running for election to that office, and he has been at the center of a nationwide controversy over the issue since his refusal to obey the federal order to remove it.

The federal judge ruled that the presence of the monument was a violation of the Constitution's ban on government endorsement of religion. There has certainly been a sharp lack of consensus that the judge made the correct interpretation of the Constitution, as evidenced by protests not only in Alabama, but also across the country since the ruling and the monument's subsequent removal.

Gallup polling over the last month suggests that the majority of Americans share the sentiments of the protesters -- if not in intensity, at least in principle. For example, a Gallup Poll in late August asked Americans about the situation in Alabama, and collected the following results:

Do you approve or disapprove of a federal court decision ordering an Alabama court to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from public display in its building?

 

Approve

Disapprove

No opinion

2003 Aug 25-26

19%

77

4



To follow up, a Gallup Poll two weeks later asked Americans about the Ten Commandments issue in a slightly different way, this time stressing the constitutional arguments that could be made on both sides of the situation.

Turning now to the controversy over the Ten Commandments monument in the Federal Judiciary Building in Montgomery Alabama, which comes closer to your view – [ROTATED: you think the Ten Commandments monument should be REMOVED from public display because of the U.S. Constitution's provision about the separation of church and state, (or) you think the Ten Commandments monument should NOT be removed from public display because of the U.S. Constitution's provision about freedom of religion]?

 

Should be
removed

Should not be
removed

No
opinion

2003 Sep 8-10

21%

77

2



The results are almost identical across both of these questions. About three in four Americans agree that the Ten Commandments monument should not have been removed.

Indeed, a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asked about the Ten Commandments issue for a third time, embedding it within a list of six situations in which religion and government could be mixed. Americans were asked whether they approved or disapproved of each, with the following results:

 

Approve or Disapprove of the Following

2003 Sep 19-21


Approve


Disapprove

%

%

The inscription "In God We Trust" on U.S. coins

90

8

Non-denominational prayer at public school ceremonies

78

21

Ten Commandments monument in public school or gov't building

70

29

Federal funds for social programs by Christian religious organizations

64

34

Federal funds for social programs by Islamic religious organizations

41

56

Monument of the Quran in public school or government building

33

64



In this question context, it is clear that Americans' approval of the public display of the Ten Commandments is generally in line with approval of several other situations in which religion is connected with the government.

(Of some interest is the fact that almost two-thirds of Americans approve of the use of federal monies to fund social programs run by Christian groups. This would be similar to the faith-based initiative program that has been a part of President Bush's agenda.)

Islamic Symbols?

The above data show that less than a majority of Americans approve of the display of the Quran in a public area or of the use of federal funds for social programs sponsored by Islamic religious organizations.

Does this suggest that Americans condone the religious expression of Christian religion in connection with government institutions, but not other, non-Christian religions? Perhaps not. The question in the Sept. 19-21 poll did not ask if each of the situations listed should be allowed by law, or protected under the Constitution, but rather if the respondent "approved" or "disapproved" of each. It is certainly possible that Americans may have been responding to the question in terms of their general approval of disapproval of the religion rather than the constitutionality of that religion being connected to government situations or functions.

Additionally, Americans seem to reject the notion of the government's blessing of only Christianity. In particular, only 10% of Americans say that it is acceptable to display only Christian symbols in public places or government buildings. The majority says that it is acceptable to display Christian symbols as long as symbols of other religions are displayed, and another 3 in 10 say it is not acceptable to display any religious symbols.

Which comes closest to your opinion about displays of religion in public places or government buildings – [ROTATED: it is acceptable to display only Christian symbols, it is acceptable to display Christian symbols as long as symbols of other religions are also displayed, or it is unacceptable to display any religious symbols at all]?

 

Acceptable to
display only
Christian

Acceptable to display
all religions

 

Unacceptable


No
opinion

2003 Sep 19-21

10%

58

29

3



Furthermore, a slight majority of Americans agree that if the government promotes the teaching of a particular religion, it harms the rights of people who do not belong to that religion.

Which comes closer to your view – [ROTATED: government can promote the teachings of a religion without harming the rights of people who do not belong to that religion, (or) any time government promotes the teachings of a religion, it can harm the rights of people who do not belong to that religion]?

 

Can promote
without harming

Can harm anytime
it promotes

No
opinion

2003 Sep 19-21

40%

54

6



Sending a Message?

It is also important to note that Americans, while favoring the presence of the Ten Commandments in the public areas of a federal building, do not believe that this sends a message that the justice system gives special consideration to Jews or Christians.

Do you think a monument to the Ten Commandments in a courthouse sends a message that the justice system gives special consideration to Jews and Christians over those who belong to other religions, or does it not send that message?

 

Yes, does

No, does not

No opinion

2003 Sep 19-21

25%

73

2



The pattern of official judicial decisions on these matters will no doubt change in the years ahead, but at the moment, the American public generally appears to be at odds with the federal judge's decision in the Alabama case. It is also clear that the public has complex attitudes when it comes to religion and government. A significant majority of Americans think that it is acceptable to have a religious monument in the lobby of a government building, the phrase "In God We Trust" on the nation's coins, and even for the federal government to provide funding to Christian social service organizations. At the same time, there is an apparent recognition that the government should not support just one religion, but allow for the expression of symbols of all faiths alongside those of Christianity.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected sample of 1,003 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 19-21, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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