The Netherlands was first. Then Belgium. Closer to home, Canada legalized homosexual marriages last month, granting same-sex couples rights identical to those of married heterosexuals. In the United States, the Massachusetts Supreme Court is poised to rule on the legality of gay marriage -- a ruling that could make Massachusetts the first state to recognize homosexual marriages.
According to a June 2003 Gallup Poll*, 39% of Americans feel that the law should recognize marriage between homosexuals as valid, while a majority, 55%, disagrees.
Gay Marriage in 2003
In May 2003**, Gallup asked Americans a similar question -- whether they favor or oppose homosexual couples forming legal "civil unions," giving them some of the same legal rights as married couples. About half of Americans, 49%, said they favor homosexuals forming civil unions, while the other half, 49%, opposed such a law.
The exclusion of the word "marriage" -- considered by many to carry religious overtones that the phrase "civil union" does not -- may explain the lower favorability rating for this question. But the idea of gay marriage has steadily gained support, just as Gallup's basic measures on homosexuality have shown increased acceptance of same-sex relations. When the question on gay marriage was first asked in 1996, 27% of Americans thought marriage between homosexuals should be valid, significantly lower than this year's 39%.
Education and Religiosity
Levels of education and religiosity (as measured by church attendance) are related to views on this topic. Respondents who attend church weekly are overwhelmingly opposed to homosexual marriages, as just 21% of this group thinks these marriages should be recognized as valid and 74% thinks they should not. Fifty-seven percent of Americans who seldom or never attend church support gay marriages, while only 36% are opposed. Similar differences are observed according to political ideology and partisanship, both of which are related to religiosity. Conservatives and Republicans are far more likely to oppose homosexual marriages than are liberals and Democrats.
Americans with higher levels of education are more likely to feel that homosexual marriage should be legally valid (44%) than those with a high school education or less (31%). In fact, a majority of Americans with a postgraduate education (51%) approve of same-sex marriages.
The Rev. Sue Anne Steffey Morrow stands squarely at the intersection of academia and religion on this issue. As a Methodist minister and the former associate dean of religious life at Princeton University, she has married hundreds of couples, but one service garnered national attention and considerable anguish from many Princeton alumni -- the commitment ceremony she performed for Princeton alumni Michael Beer and Jason Rudy in April 1997.
Asked if she thought, in light of the rising trend in favor of homosexual marriage, that a similar ceremony today would cause such a deeply felt response, Morrow said she hopes it would not. "As the poll suggests," she noted, "more Americans are coming to believe, accept, and understand the civil and constitutional rights for all citizens includes members of the homosexual community."
In contrast, Michael J. McManus, a self-described conservative Christian and founder of Marriage Savers, does not agree with those wishing to legalize homosexual marriage. McManus' goal is to strengthen marriage between and man and woman to benefit children -- "part of God's plan and the historic purpose for marriage," in his view.
Even if children are not involved, McManus still doesn't approve of homosexual unions. "Marriage today is being held together by gossamer threads," he said. "Gay marriage is just another step in the destruction of the institution. If homosexual marriage goes forward, the culture will conclude that marriage doesn't matter anymore."
Father John Gibson, rector of the Prince of Peace Episcopal Church in Apex, N.C., holds a different view. "My personal opinion is if homosexuals are not granted the option to marry, and find the companionship all people crave," he said, "they are being unfairly excluded from the same options society gives to every other individual."
One of the largest gaps in opinion on this issue is between age groups. Sixty-one percent of young adults (aged 18 to 29) think homosexual marriages should be valid, compared to 22% of those over age 65. Vera Martz, an 84-year-old retired homemaker from Pittsburgh, put it this way: "When I was growing up, homosexuality was never even mentioned, and I don't know anyone who is a homosexual -- so the entire topic is a bit overwhelming to me. But I do feel that homosexual marriage goes against the natural order of things."
Compare that to the opinion of Tina Tiongson, a 24-year-old assistant producer and animation designer from New York. "Gays should definitely be allowed to marry. A committed relationship depends entirely on the individuals involved," she said, "not on their sexual preference. And most people forget that marriage is a civil issue, not a religious one."
With such diverse and passionate opinions on same-sex marriage, will Americans ever reach consensus? It's hard to say, but when asked if gay marriage is inevitable even the conservative McManus -- who prays the trend will reverse itself -- said, "My answer, alas, is probably."
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 27-29, 2003. For results based on these total samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.
**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 5-7, 2003. For results based on these total samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.