Politics

Majority of Americans Continue to Oppose Gay Marriage

by Jeffrey M. Jones

No change in support from last year

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans' views on same-sex marriage have essentially stayed the same in the past year, with a majority of 57% opposed to granting such marriages legal status and 40% in favor of doing so. Though support for legal same-sex marriage is significantly higher now than when Gallup first asked about it in 1996, in recent years support has appeared to stall, peaking at 46% in 2007.

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The lack of change in public opinion on same-sex marriage seen in the new USA Today/Gallup poll occurs in an environment in which an increasing number of states have taken steps to legalize such unions. Same-sex marriages are now legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, and Iowa, and will be legal in Vermont in September.

On Tuesday, California's Supreme Court refused to add that state to the list, by upholding the Proposition 8 referendum, approved by voters, that banned same-sex marriage in the state. The referendum was put on the November 2008 ballot in response to an earlier court decision that allowed same-sex couples to legally marry in California.

Among major demographic or attitudinal subgroups, self-identified liberals show the greatest support for legal gay marriage at 75% in the May 7-10 poll. By contrast, only 19% of conservatives think same-sex marriages should be legally valid.

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Just a slim majority (55%) of Democrats approve of gay marriage, but they are more likely to do so than independents (45%) and Republicans (20%).

Younger Americans have typically been much more supportive of same-sex marriage than older Americans, and that is the case in the current poll. A majority of 18- to 29-year-olds think gay or lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry, while support reaches only as high as 40% among the three older age groups.

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A separate question in the poll found close to half of Americans, 48%, saying that allowing legal same-sex marriages would change society for the worse. That is more than three times the 13% who believe legal gay marriage would change society for the better. The remaining 38% say it would have no effect on society or do not have an opinion on the matter.

These results are essentially unchanged from a Gallup Poll conducted six years ago.

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Support Higher for Gay Rights Not Involving Marriage

Though Americans seem reluctant to endorse gay marriage, the poll finds most Americans supporting gay rights in a variety of other areas.

In an update of a question Gallup has asked since 1977, a majority of 56% of Americans say gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should be legal. A plurality (if not a majority) of the public has taken this view all but one time Gallup has asked the question this decade.

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Americans' views about allowing gay men and lesbians to serve in the military have undergone a major shift since Bill Clinton attempted to change military policy early in his administration. No more than 43% of Americans favored military service by openly gay soldiers in 1993, according several NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls conducted that year. Clinton and the military eventually compromised on the so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that allowed gays to serve as long as they did not disclose their sexual orientation.

Today, the latest USA Today/Gallup poll finds 69% of Americans in favor of military service by openly gay men and lesbians. While the Clinton-era policy remains in place, President Obama promised during the campaign to change it.

Americans also show broad support for gay rights in the following areas:

  • Sixty-seven percent say gay and lesbian domestic partners should have access to health insurance and other employee benefits.
  • Nearly three in four Americans, 73%, believe gay and lesbian domestic partners should have inheritance rights.
  • Sixty-seven percent favor a proposal to expand hate-crime laws to cover crimes committed against gays or lesbians.
  • Only 28% of Americans believe that gays or lesbians should not be hired as elementary school teachers. Sixty-nine percent believe they should be allowed to teach children.

Americans are somewhat less supportive of adoption rights for gay couples, though a majority (54%) still support this. The current level of support does represent an increase from Newsweek polls conducted in 2002 (46%) and 2004 (45%).

Implications

While Americans have become increasingly likely to believe that the law should not discriminate against gay individuals and gay couples, the public still seems reluctant at this point to extend those protections to the institution of marriage. Public support for gay marriage appears to have stalled in the last two years, even as the gay marriage movement has scored a number of legal and legislative victories at the state level in the past year.

In addition to the states that have recently legalized gay marriage, New Hampshire and New York are currently considering legislation to make gay marriage legal in their states. The California Supreme Court ruling announced Tuesday is a significant setback for the gay rights movement; however, it is possible for voters to undo Proposition 8 by passing a new referendum.

Clearly, much of the action on gay marriage policy is taking place at the state level. President Obama personally does not support gay marriage, but believes that states should decide the matter for themselves. Thus, he seems unlikely to seek a national standard. State courts have obviously played an important part in deciding gay marriage laws; at this point it is not known whether the issue will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the future.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,015 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 7-10, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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