Ministerial Exception Survey

An in-depth look at American knowledge and opinion of constitutional principles at the heart of current religious liberty cases


How much do Americans know about the Constitutional protection of the ministerial exception, and what are their opinions about how it should be applied? 

As a companion to the annual Religious Freedom Index, the ministerial exception survey and others to come present opinion data on current religious freedom questions. Where the Index provides a macro view of religious freedom sentiment, this and the surveys to follow will provide more detailed views of principles covered in the Index that are central to current religious freedom cases playing out in courts across the country.


  • Test your Ministerial Exception Knowledge and Compare Your Results

    How well do you know the constitutional concept at the heart of some of the Supreme Court’s recent religious liberty cases? Take the four-question church autonomy quiz to find out and compare your answers to those who took the quiz in our nationally representative survey:



In 2012, the Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment prevents governments and courts from interfering in religious organizations’ decisions about who passes their faith on to the next generation. This constitutional right has been commonly known as the “ministerial exception.”

In May 2020, Becket surveyed a nationally representative sample of n=1,004 American adults on their understanding and opinions of this core constitutional principle. Our main findings from the survey include:


A surprising understanding of ministerial exception principles

Respondents correctly answered three out of four basic true or false questions on the principles of religious autonomy and the ministerial exception.

A natural fit: the ministerial exception and a healthy separation of church and state

Respondents showed the highest levels of agreement when principles of religious autonomy and ministerial exception were presented in the context of avoiding governmental interference in religious groups’ internal decisions, beliefs and mission.

Religious organizations, not Uncle Sam, in the driver’s seat

Majorities of respondents want the ability to resolve internal disputes to be out of the government’s hands and in the hands of the religious organizations themselves.

A surprising understanding of ministerial exception principles  

Although Americans are often criticized for their inability to answer basic civics questions, respondents performed well in a test of their understanding of the principles at the core of the ministerial exception.

Respondents averaged three out of four correct answers to basic questions on the current state of the ministerial exception. This level of accuracy was notably consistent across levels of generations, education levels, and political party affiliations. Older respondents did perform better than younger respondents, but even Gen Z respondents averaged 2.9 correct answers.

Respondents were most successful at identifying the statement “the government can regulate who can lead a private religious group and who cannot,” as false, with 83 percent answering correctly. Only slightly fewer (82 percent) were able to correctly identify as true the statement “according to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Constitution protects the right of a religious organization to choose those who carry out its important religious functions, such as preaching its beliefs, teaching its faith, and carrying out its mission.” Notably, a third of Gen Z respondents inaccurately thought that “the religious functions of churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations must be approved by the government.” Only nine percent of Baby Boomers (56-74) answered this same question incorrectly. Respondents in general struggled most with identifying the statement, “the U.S. Constitution does not protect a religious organization’s right to maintain and teach its own beliefs if those beliefs are unpopular or behind the times” as false.

Overall, respondents answered the questions correctly nearly 80 percent of the time. That finding is all the more impressive when one considers that other studies have found that 63 percent of Americans didn’t know that there are nine Supreme Court Justices, or that only one in four could name all three branches of government.

A natural fit: the ministerial exception and a healthy separation of church and state

Perhaps most Americans are able to correctly answer questions about the ministerial exception because it already fits into their understanding of the proper separation of church and state.

More than two-thirds of respondents agreed that keeping the government out of a religious organization’s internal religious disputes is an important facet of a healthy separation of church and state—this was the highest level of agreement of any opinion question on the survey.

These results affirm the finding of the Religious Freedom Index, where 70 percent of respondents supported and accepted the freedom for religious groups or organizations to make their own employment and leadership decisions without government interference.

In other questions, a majority of Americans show support for keeping the government out of religious organizations’ internal decisions. Sixty-six percent of respondents think the government should stay out of a religious organization’s decisions about who teaches its faith to the next generation.  Nearly six in ten respondents agreed that the government should never be allowed to resolve disputes about a religion’s interpretation of its own teachings.

A majority of Americans agree with most appellate court decisions regarding the scope of the ministerial exception—that even if an employee of a religious organization does not have a religious-sounding title, they may play an important role in passing on a religion’s teachings.

This majority of support for religious organizations’ freedom for self-determination cut across most demographic lines.

Religious organizations, not Uncle Sam, in the driver’s seat

When given the choice of whether a religious organization or some other entity should have oversight of how to best pass the faith on to the next generation, respondents overwhelmingly sided with the religious organization.

Respondents were asked, “If a dispute arises over who can or cannot teach a religious organization’s beliefs to the next generation, who should have the final say in resolving the dispute?” They were given the choice of the religious organization, the courts, public opinion, the government, or a jury. Not only did respondents side most often with the religious organization, but they chose this more frequently by a margin of over 40 percent. Respondents put religious organizations in the driver’s seat more frequently than all other options combined. Fewer than one in five respondents said the courts or public opinion should have the final say, and fewer than one in ten said the government or a jury should.

Gen Z respondents were again an outlier in that one in four said that public opinion should have the final say in this situation. This was ten percent more than the next closest age group.

As previously discussed, sixty-six percent of respondents agree a religious organization should be able to make decisions about who it hires to teach its faith to the next generation, free from government control.

Additional Findings

Although Americans have an understanding of the principles behind the ministerial exception, significant segments still have unformed opinions on the application of these principles or simply chose not to share their opinion. More than a quarter of respondents chose neither to agree nor disagree on questions relating to whether the government should be allowed to resolve disputes about religion’s interpretations of its own teachings, whether a religious organization should be able to make decisions about who it hires to teach its faith to the next generation, and whether an employee may play an important role in passing on a religion’s teachings, even if the employee does not have a religious-sounding title.

Those who answered some of the true and false questions incorrectly were also more likely, controlling for other factors, to side with the government than religious organizations in some of the opinion questions.


In one of the first surveys of opinion on the ministerial exception, we found encouraging evidence that Americans understand the principles behind this constitutional concept. We also found evidence that most people support the protections provided by the ministerial exception, although many are still unsure of how to apply its principles to real-world situations. As we saw in the 2019 Religious Freedom Index, when it comes to religious organizations’ freedom to determine their future, Americans prefer a hands-off government approach. They intuitively seem to understand the protections of the ministerial exception as an element of an appropriate separation of church and state.

There are many topics like the ministerial exception that are core to religious freedom but that are understudied and underreported. By sharing data and findings on some of these topics, we hope to expand contemporary conversations about religious liberty issues and shine a light on some of the most important but understudied issues within the religious liberty world.



This survey was conducted from April 20-22, 2020 as part of CARAVAN’s weekly omnibus survey using its online, opt-in panel. In total, a sample of n=1,004 interviews were conducted among U.S. adults age 18 and older. Weighting was used to ensure a representative population with regard to age, gender, race, geographic region, and education.

This was an online quantitative survey. If we were to estimate a margin of error, it would be +/-3.1% at 95% confidence. All polls have varying degrees of error that should always be considered when interpreting results.

See full interview schedule.