NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The 2005 State of the First Amendment survey shows that 70% of Americans would OK the posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings, and that 85% would approve if the commandments are included as “one document among many historical documents” when displayed in public buildings, the First Amendment Center said.
The annual survey, conducted since 1997 by the First Amendment Center and released June 28, samples the American public’s opinion on a variety of First Amendment issues.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday on two cases, from Kentucky and Texas, concerning Ten Commandments displays. In a case involving Kentucky courthouse displays, it said county officials crossed a constitutional line and were, in effect, endorsing religion even though other documents were added. But in the Texas case, the Court approved an outdoor display where the commandments are part of a larger exhibit on the grounds of the statehouse that recognized the history of the nation’s legal system and religious heritage.
“Public opinion clearly is in line with the Court’s ruling in the Texas case,” said Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “The survey results also say the public does not object to posting the Commandments in public buildings, and also in schools, without other exhibits or statements.”
Support in the survey for such postings has remained steady at about 7 in 10 respondents since 2002.
The 2005 survey also found that 52% of respondents said posting of the Ten Commandments in a public building was “primarily a statement about the root of our laws,” while 36% said it was “primarily an acknowledgement of God.”
"At first glance, the public might not like the Kentucky decision. But the more people learn about both rulings, the more they will like how the Court split the difference,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “By stressing government neutrality toward religion as a core principle of religious freedom, the Court carved out a broad middle ground that should have popular support. The Kentucky result will make it harder for government officials to use their position to promote a religious message. And the Texas outcome puts a brake on efforts to scrub all references to religion from public spaces. Taken together, the decisions should slow down lawsuits from both sides."
Another key finding of the 2005 survey is that 63% of those surveyed oppose adopting a constitutional amendment to give Congress the power to punish flag desecration as a form of protest — up from 53% in 2004.
The survey was conducted before to the 286-130 vote in the U.S. House on June 22 to approve a proposed amendment that would give Congress the right to pass laws prohibiting “physical desecration” of the American flag. The measure is now before U.S. Senate, which is expected to consider it sometime after July 4.
“This is a very emotional issue that asks Congress and the nation to balance two powerful considerations: A widespread desire to honor this most-venerated symbol of the nation and a bedrock element of American democracy, freedom of speech,” Policinski said. “The survey results show that an increasing majority of Americans have second thoughts about amending the Constitution to deal with the issue of flag desecration.”
The 2005 survey also found:
- Nearly 80% of respondents agreed that broadcasters should be allowed to televise the proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court, though less than half agreed that broadcasters should be able to televise any courtroom trial they wish.
- 75% said that as part of a classroom discussion, public school students should be allowed to express views that others might find offensive, but just 27% agreed that students should be allowed to wear T-shirts with messages or pictures that might offend others.
- 64% endorsed increasing fines to as much as $500,000 for over-the-airwaves broadcasters “who violate government rules” regarding content on broadcast television, But 60% opposed extending government authority to regulate content on broadcast television to programs on cable or satellite television systems.
- 63% disagreed that the “government should be allowed to access records of materials borrowed by public library patrons,” while 77% said library patrons should be told when the government asks for records of what they have borrowed from the library. On June 15, the House of Representatives weighed in, voting 238-187 to block the part of the Patriot Act that applies to library and bookstore records, though not to online searches.
- 23% of Americans said “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees,” compared to 49% in 2002 (the first survey done after the 9/11 attacks) and down from 30% in 2004.
“Americans do not have a ‘lock-step’ view on First Amendment issues as a whole, but vary on specific freedoms and matters of government involvement and control,” Policinski said. “Those who see these issues from an extreme view — on any side — may be out of step with the public.”
The First Amendment Center, in cooperation with American Journalism Review magazine, commissioned New England Survey Research Associates, to conduct the general public survey of attitudes about the First Amendment. The survey was conducted by telephone between May 13 and May 23, 2005. The sampling error for 1,003 national interviews is about 3%. AJR magazine will publish a report about State of the First Amendment 2005 survey results related to news media issues in its Aug. 1 issue.
See State of the First Amendment surveys and related material.