Poll: With Supreme Court Decision Looming, Most Americans See Gay Marriage as a Certainty
Nearly three-quarters of Americans say same-sex marriage has reached the point in which it is certain to become legal, according to a newly released poll from the Pew Research Center.
By David Lauter
Even as they await rulings from the Supreme Court this month on the legal rights of gay and lesbian couples, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage agree on one point -- legal recognition has become inevitable.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans say same-sex marriage has reached the point in which it is certain to become legal, according to a newly released poll from the Pew Research Center. That includes 59 percent of those who oppose the idea, as well as 85 percent of supporters.
The nationwide poll asked numerous questions about public attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. As a result, it provides an unusually detailed look at views that have changed rapidly over the last decade.
Overall, a majority of Americans, 51 percent, now say they support same-sex marriage, compared with 42 percent who oppose it. That's the first time that Pew's surveys have shown more than half of Americans supporting marriage rights for gay couples.
Three changes in major social attitudes appear to have driven the shift: fewer Americans see homosexual behavior as morally wrong; more have gay friends or acquaintances; and more believe that being gay is a quality people are born with, rather than a choice.
Of the three, the change in moral beliefs appears to have had the biggest impact, according to an analysis by Pew researchers. A person's view of whether homosexual behavior is sinful was the strongest, consistent predictor of attitudes toward marriage rights. Among those who oppose same-sex marriage, religious belief is by far the most often-cited reason, the poll found.
The percentage of Americans who say that "it is a sin to engage in homosexual behavior" has dropped. A decade ago, Americans said yes to that question by 55 percent to 33 percent. Today, they split evenly. Those who say they see such conduct as sinful oppose same-sex marriage by more than 3 to 1. Those who say they do not see the conduct as a sin support marriage rights overwhelmingly, 84 percent to 11 percent.
On a related question, Americans by a 2-1 ratio say homosexuality should be "accepted by society," not "discouraged." A decade ago, Americans divided equally on that question.
Just slightly less than half of Americans see a conflict between homosexuality and their religious beliefs, but that clash does not affect all groups equally. Among black Protestants and white evangelicals, for example, a majority say they see such a conflict. Majorities of both groups say that homosexuality should be discouraged and both also oppose same-sex marriage.
Catholics also say they see a conflict, but it appears to have less impact on their views. By 71 percent to 20 percent, Catholics say homosexuality should be accepted, rather than discouraged. Only one-third of Catholics say they see homosexual conduct as sinful, while 53 percent do not. And by 61 percent to 31 percent, Catholics support same-sex marriage. The church teaches homosexual relations are a sin and has led fights against same-sex marriage in several states.
Among religious categories, those who say they are not affiliated with any faith are the least likely to say homosexuality conflicts with their beliefs, with 81 percent saying it does not. The unaffiliated are also the most likely to support legalizing same-sex marriage, favoring it 71 percent to 20 percent.
Almost nine in 10 Americans now say they know someone who is gay or lesbian, a number that has grown significantly over the last two decades as more gay men and lesbians have become open about their sexuality. About half (49 percent) say a close family member or one of their closest friends is gay or lesbian.
That greater familiarity has shifted attitudes. A decade ago, a majority of Americans (51 percent) said they had unfavorable views of gay men and a plurality (48 percent) had unfavorable views of lesbians. Today, a majority has favorable views of both although unfavorable views remain common among certain groups, including white evangelicals and blacks. By contrast, people with education beyond college, those who identified themselves as liberal Democrats and people under 30 all had favorable views by large majorities.
More than two-thirds of those who say they know a lot of gays or lesbians favor same-sex marriage. By contrast, among those who say they don't know anyone who is gay, just one-third support marriage rights. People who have close family members or friends who are gay support marriage by almost 2-1. Those who don't, closely split, 41 percent to 51 percent.
Those who live in urban areas, younger Americans and those who don't frequently go to religious services are more likely to say they know many gay people than those in rural areas, senior citizens and frequent church-goers. But even taking those factors into account, simply knowing gay people correlates strongly with supporting same-sex marriage.
Among some groups, including self-identified Republicans, knowing someone who is gay was a particularly strong predictor of support for marriage, the researchers found.
Two other gauges of attitudes relate to children.
In a 1985 Los Angeles Times poll, almost two-thirds of Americans said they would be "very upset" if a child of theirs said that he or she was gay. By 2004, a Times poll found the number saying they would be "very upset" had dropped to one-third. Now, in the Pew survey, just one in five take that view, with 40 percent saying they would be at least somewhat upset. A majority, 55 percent, say they would not be upset at all, up from just 9 percent in 1985.
Just under one-third of Americans say they know gays or lesbians who are raising children. Those who do know such families support same-sex marriage by slightly more than 2-1. As recently as 2007, half of Americans said they thought that gays and lesbians raising children was a "bad thing for American society." Today, about one-third express that view, with 41 percent saying it doesn't make much difference and 21 percent seeing gays as parents as a good thing.
The third factor that appears to have shifted views of some Americans is the number who see homosexuality as innate. Americans divide evenly today on the question of whether "people are born gay or lesbian" or whether it is "just the way some choose to live." Those who believe homosexuality is a choice are significantly less likely to support marriage rights.
That factor appears to be most important in shaping attitudes of older Americans. Indeed, those Americans younger than 30, a group which has positive attitudes toward gay men and lesbians and supports same-sex marriage by a wide margin, are somewhat more likely than older Americans to see homosexuality as a choice, the poll showed. That finding may reflect the more fluid definitions of sexuality and gender roles among members of the millennial generation.
A dozen states and the District of Columbia currently allow marriages by same-sex couples. Supporters have won legislative battles this year in three states, Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota, although they have failed so far in a fourth state, Illinois. Support for same-sex marriage is strongest in the Northeast -- the one part of the country where most states now allow it -- and among Americans younger than 30.
But regardless of their view on the underlying issue, belief in the inevitability of change in the nation's marriage laws sweeps across most political and demographic groups. Among white evangelical Protestants, for example, despite their strong opposition to same-sex marriage, 70 percent say they see the change as "inevitable."
The survey by the Pew Research Center was conducted by phone, including land lines and cell phones from May 1-5. The poll surveyed 1,504 Americans ages 18 and older and has a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percentage points.
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