Do People Think Cake Bakers Should Be Forced to Work Gay Weddings? Maybe, Maybe Not

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Wedding cake with red roses
Matthias Rhomberg

According to the Pew Research Center, half of Americans think business owners should be required to provide their services for same-sex weddings even if doing so violates their religious beliefs. In a September poll from the group, respondents split down the middle on the following question:

If a business provides wedding services, such as catering or flowers, should it be allowed to refuse those services to a same-sex couple for religious reasons, or required to provide those services as it would to all other customers?

The number saying businesses should be required to provide such services included a majority of Catholics, noteworthy given Rome's stance on "traditional" marriage. This all seems to suggest a large segment of the population is fine with the idea that people can be compelled to do a job even if they feel it goes against their beliefs.

Not so fast—issues like this are tricky to poll on. Even small, seemingly inconsequential tweaks to wording can completely upend the results of a question. Take for example the contraception mandate issue decided earlier this year by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. In February 2012, a CBS News/New York Times poll asked the following question:

And what about for religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university—do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that their health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees?

The response was overwhelming—by a 2–1 margin, respondents supported the requirement. But when the same two outlets tweaked the question a month later, they got the opposite result. Worded as follows, a full majority—57 percent—said the employer should not have to cover contraception:

What about for religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university? Do you think their health insurance plans should have to cover the full costs of birth control for their female employees, or should they be allowed to opt out of covering that based on religious or moral objections?

By explicitly noting that the employers have religious or moral grounds for objecting to the mandate, the question elicits a radically different response.

The Pew question already mentions "religious reasons," but framing can still make a difference. It's one thing for a respondent to be against letting businesses "refuse to serve same-sex couples." It's another thing to say people shouldn't be allowed to "decline to participate in a same-sex wedding." The former evokes the image of a restauranteur or shopkeeper throwing gay people out of his business, while the latter sounds more like he's politely reserving the right not to take someone on as a new client. The end result might be the same, but the connotations are worlds apart.

The most likely explanation is that a lot of people see this as an issue marked by shades of gray. They don't believe it's OK to discriminate against gay couples and would hate for anyone to mistake them for a homophobe. But they're also inclined to want others' religious beliefs respected, and heavy-handed government rubs them the wrong way too. So they sit somewhere in the middle, unsure how these considerations ought to be balanced against each other—and ultimately answer poll questions mostly based on how the wording makes them feel.

The truth is, a person doesn't have to be opposed to same-sex marriage to think government would be overstepping its authority if it tried to force someone to provide services for a gay or lesbian wedding. After all, lots of activities that most people consider morally objectionable—like cheating on your spouse, say—nonetheless remain legal. Even if we assume bigotry is the only reason a person might balk about working a same-sex wedding, it's not against the law to be a crappy person.