Retiring Old Assumptions About Religious People and Same-Sex Marriage

Recently, Democratic Washington State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen offered evidence that the same-sex marriage debate has moved past the old battle lines between secular proponents and religious foes. Sen. Haugen tipped the scales for supporters of a same-sex marriage bill in the Washington legislature when she announced that she would support the measure. Her decision, she explained, was grounded in her "strong Christian beliefs" and her desire to "live by the Golden Rule." Sen. Haugen's distinctly religious logic echoed Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, who is a practicing Catholic. Gregoire strongly endorsed her state's same-sex marriage bill after opposing marriage equality for most of her time as governor.

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, a debate where there religious voices were also raised on both sides. If the issue passes in Washington State, it will join five other states and the District of Columbia as jurisdictions where gay and lesbian Americans are legally able to marry. Five other states are also debating the issue this year.

Recent analysis of 2011 polling on same-sex marriage reveals that the changing landscape challenges some common stereotypes about religion and the issue of same-sex marriage. Notably, 2011 was the first year on record where supporting same-sex marriage was not a minority position. At mid-year, several polls from different organizations (including one from Public Religion Research Institute) found slim majority support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Polling later in the year continued to find plurality or even support for same-sex marriage.

More significantly, a new exploration of 2011 polling by Public Religion Research Institute offers decisive evidence that the old assumptions about battle lines between secular proponents and religious foes no longer hold. Majorities of five major religious groups and the religiously unaffiliated favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to three major religious groups who oppose same-sex marriage. On the side supporting same-sex marriage, the religiously unaffiliated (72 percent) are joined by majorities of Jews (76 percent), Americans affiliated with a non-Judeo-Christian religion (63 percent), white Catholics (56 percent), Hispanic Catholics (53 percent) and white mainline Protestants (52 percent). Together, these religious groups make up approximately 45 percent of the general population.

On the other hand, large majorities of white evangelical Protestants (75 percent), Mormons (75 percent) and black Protestants (63 percent) continue to oppose same-sex marriage. Opposition to same-sex marriage among these groups is intense: near-majorities of Mormons (48 percent) and evangelicals (46 percent) strongly oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. Together, these groups comprise approximately 32 percent of the general population.

Within these opposition groups, however, a generational gap signals that with the passage of time, this intense resistance may ebb. Even among white evangelical Protestants -- the group most opposed to same-sex marriage -- nearly 4-in-10 (39 percent) white evangelical Protestant Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, a rate that is more than 20 points higher than that of white evangelicals ages 30 and older (18 percent). The same is true of Catholics: 66 percent of Catholic Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, 15 points higher than Catholics ages 30 and above (51 percent).

The quirks of specific constituencies and cultures may drive individual statewide legislative and ballot initiative battles this year. But the prominent testimonies of religious elected officials, alongside the perspectives from the people in the pews, certainly demand that the media retire the archaic assumption that religious people oppose same-sex marriage.