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Does the public support Indiana-style religious freedom laws? It depends how you ask.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

David Weigel has a piece up arguing that Democrats have been so intoxicated with business leaders taking the gay rights side in the Indiana religious freedom controversy that they're ignoring polling showing that the public agrees with Mike Pence. He cites a March Marist poll in which 54 percent of Americans agreed with "allowing First Amendment religious liberty protection or exemptions for faith-based organizations and individuals even when it conflicts with government laws."

The truth is that this is an issue where the polling seems highly subject to framing effects driven by the exact wording of the question. As the debate moves from an abstract one about religious freedom to a more concrete one about gay rights, the Democrats are going to find themselves on stronger and stronger footing.

Americans oppose legalizing discrimination against gays

Consider a June 2014 Public Religion Research Institute poll that asked, "Do you think that a small-business owner in your state should be allowed to refuse to provide products or services to individuals because they are gay or lesbian if it violates their religious beliefs?" Eighty percent of respondents said no.

But a September 2014 Pew poll showed a much closer split. That poll asked, "If a business provides wedding services, such as catering or flowers, should it be allowed to refuse those services to same-sex couples for religious reasons, or required to provide those services as it would to all other customers."

Forty-seven percent said they should be allowed to refuse, and 49 percent said they should not be allowed to refuse.

Most people probably haven't thought much about this

Putting together the Marist poll and the PRRI poll, you get a clear sense of what the public thinks. Voters strongly believe in religious freedom and think observant people should get exemptions from "government laws." Voters also believe strongly in nondiscrimination norms, and strongly support policies that would ban discrimination against gays and lesbians — even discrimination that is grounded in religious faith.

In the real world, of course, these values are in considerable tension. A ban on discrimination is, necessarily, a "government law." Creating an exemption to the "government law" banning discrimination necessarily means you have legalized discrimination.

But most people probably haven't spent a lot of time pondering this question over the years, so they haven't worked out a clear position. Ask them about religious liberty protections and they are for them. Ask them about legalizing discrimination and they are against it. That's why the Indiana legislation was framed as a religious freedom bill and not a discrimination bill. But everything that's happened since then has tended to reframe the legislation as legalizing discrimination.

The conversation has shifted onto terrain that's very friendly to the liberal view. That's why business groups have been lining up against Pence, that's why conservatives are acting defensive, and that's why Democrats are acting confident despite Weigel's Marist poll.

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