November 18, 2003

Religious Beliefs Underpin Opposition to Homosexuality

Part 2: Gay Marriage

Gay Marriage Opposed

By nearly two-to-one, more Americans oppose (59%) than favor (32%) legalizing gay marriage. This reflects something of a backlash from polls conducted earlier in the year, before the Supreme Court’s ruling in June that struck down state laws against sodomy. In a July survey shortly after that decision, the public opposed gay marriage by a smaller margin (53%-38%).

Strong opposition to the idea of gay marriage is the plurality position. Among those who oppose the idea, nearly six-in-ten say they feel strongly about it (35% of the total population express this view.) Among those who favor gay marriage, fewer than three-in-ten say they strongly support the proposal (9% of the total.)

The survey also finds that most who are opposed to gay marriage believe that it would be enough to prohibit it by law, and that a constitutional amendment is not necessary. While 59% oppose gay marriage, just 10% say the Constitution should “be amended to ban gay marriage” in a follow-up question. Instead, 42% say it is “enough to prohibit gay marriage by law without changing the Constitution.”

This is notably different from a number of recent surveys which have found majorities supporting such an amendment when no alternative of a legal prohibition is offered. For example, a July CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey found 50% favoring, and 45% opposing, “a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being between a man and a woman, thus barring marriages between gay or lesbian couples.”

Young People More Supportive of Gay Marriage

A closer look at the opinions of various demographic groups on this issue shows that young people, especially those in their late teens and twenties, are more supportive of gay marriage than are older Americans. Even this youngest group of Americans do not, on balance, favor this idea; rather, they are divided. But that is in stark contrast to people in their forties and fifties, where twice as many oppose gay marriage as favor it. Among those in their sixties and seventies, opposition outnumbers support by as much as four-to-one.

People in their early thirties today have a relatively favorable view of gay marriage and their views are similar to those of younger generations. But those in their late thirties are much more opposed; in fact, opposition is as widespread in this group as among people in their forties and fifties.

Education a Key Among Older Americans

Overall, Americans with college degrees are divided almost evenly over the issue of gay marriage (49% oppose, 44% favor) while those without oppose the idea by well over two-to-one (63% to 27%). Education is a particularly important factor among older generations.

College graduates age 65 and older are more than three times as likely to favor gay marriage than are seniors with less education (33% to 9%). Among those age 50-64, college grads are twice as likely to favor gay marriage as their less educated counterparts (43% to 21%). By comparison, education makes relatively little difference among those under age 30, where support for gay marriage runs highest. Since younger generations are more likely to have college degrees than older, this education gap contributes to the overall size of the generation gap on gay marriage.

While majorities of both genders are opposed to the idea of gay marriage, men express somewhat more opposition than women. This gender gap exists across all age ranges, with men consistently four-to-eight percent more likely to oppose gay marriage than women.

Not surprisingly, the most religious Americans are the least likely to favor gay marriage. Nearly half of Americans with relatively low religious commitment approve of allowing homosexual couples the right to marry, compared with just 17% of those who are more religious. This gap along religious lines exists across all age groups.

The issue of gay marriage has a clear political component. Both Democrats and independents (39% each) are twice as likely as Republicans (18%) to approve of gay marriage. This political gap between Democrats and Republicans exists across all age levels.

Attitudes about gay marriage are closely linked to where a person lives ­ with opposition significantly higher in the South, and in rural areas of the country. But there is little racial divide over gay marriage. Both whites and blacks oppose gay marriage by roughly two-to-one ­ most Hispanics also oppose the idea, but by a smaller margin (51% to 36%).

Perceptions of homosexuality are closely related to views about gay marriage. In particular, people who believe homosexuality is a choice, as opposed to a trait people are born with, are far more opposed to gay marriage, as are people who believe homosexuals can change.

Overall, most people (55%) who think homosexuality is something people are born with favor gay marriage, compared with just 21% of those who think it is just the way that some people prefer to live. Similarly, 49% of those who think homosexuality cannot be changed favor gay marriage, compared with 19% of those who think it can.

Personal contact with homosexuality is also a key factor in shaping people’s views on this policy issue. Americans who have a friend, colleague or family member who is gay are roughly twice as likely to favor gay marriage as those who do not (39% to 21%). This gap exists across all age groups, but does not override the importance of age in shaping peoples’ views. Among both the youngest and oldest cohorts, those who know someone who is gay are about twice as likely to favor gay marriage as those who do not. Among those under age 30, about half (49%) of those who know a gay person are supportive of gay marriage compared with 27% of those who do not have a gay acquaintance or relative. But among those age 65 and older, just 20% of those who know a homosexual favor gay marriage, compared with 10% who are not acquainted with a gay person.

Moral Objections Cited Most

The most common reasons given for objecting to gay and lesbian marriage are moral and religious. Asked in an open-ended format their main reason for opposing gay marriage, more than a quarter of opponents (28%) explicitly cite the view that homosexuality is immoral, a sin, or inconsistent with biblical teaching, and another 17% say the idea simply is in conflict with their religious beliefs. One-in-five who oppose gay marriage explain their position in less moral, and more literal terms, saying that the definition of marriage involves a man and a woman (16%), or that the purpose of marriage is reproduction (4%).

Other issues that frequently come up in the debate over gay marriage are not the primary factors in the public’s mind. Just 1% say they oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it undermines traditional families, and just 1% refer to possible legal or governmental problems, or the possibility of people taking advantage of such laws to get economic benefits.

Impact on Families a Concern

Although few people volunteer the impact gay marriage might have on the traditional family structure as the main reason they oppose such unions, these concerns do resonate with the public. More than half of Americans (56%) believe that allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry would undermine the traditional American family, and four-in-ten say they completely agree with this argument. Fully 76% of those who oppose gay marriage believe it would undermine the traditional American family, and 61% feel strongly about it.

A somewhat greater percentage say that gay marriage would go against their religious beliefs (62%). More than eight-in-ten opponents of gay marriage (82%) say it runs counter to their religious beliefs, with 73% completely agreeing with that sentiment. While concerns about religion and family are widespread, only a minority classify gay parents as unfit, and very few believe that the society has the right to regulate sexual behavior. By a 54% to 37% margin, most agree that gay and lesbian couples can be as good parents as heterosexual couples, and by 80% to 13% the vast majority say that society should not put any restrictions on sex between consenting adults in the privacy of their own home.

Overall, an analysis of the beliefs, perceptions and values that shape support and opposition to gay marriage finds that while religion is very important, other views ­ about diversity, parenting, and the nature of homosexuality itself ­ have a strong impact on opinions about gay marriage as well. This balance is also reflected in the fact that 45% of those opposed to gay marriage mentioned religious reasons while about the same number gave other justifications.

Seniors’ Objections to Gay Marriage: A Closer Look

While opposition to gay marriage is most widespread among older generations, this does not necessarily reflect greater moral concerns among older people, or that they see the issue of homosexuality through a predominantly religious lens. People over age 65 are no more likely to say that gay marriage “goes against my religious beliefs” than are younger respondents, and they express no greater concern about gay marriage undermining the traditional American family.

Rather, the biggest generational differences in views about homosexuality have to do with more practical, and less moralistic, concerns. A plurality of seniors worry that gays and lesbians cannot be as good parents as other couples (by a 47% to 37% margin). By comparison, people under age 30 believe gay couples can parent just as well by a 69% to 29% margin.

Older Americans also are more likely than young people to harbor doubts about how happy gay people are. And while people under age 30 say greater acceptance of homosexuality would be good for the country, not bad (by a 30% to 19% margin), older Americans tend to disagree, with 41% saying it would be bad for the country, and just 9% saying it would be good.

To a large extent, these differences reflect the fact that older Americans ­ particularly those over age 65 ­ have had far less contact with homosexual people, and have far less firmly rooted beliefs and perceptions about homosexuality. Fully half of seniors could not think of the name of a single homosexual person, either in their own lives or a celebrity. This compares with only 19% of those under age 50 and 27% of those age 50 to 64. And older Americans are far less likely to say they have a friend, relative or colleague who is gay. When asked their perceptions of and views on homosexuality, people over age 65 are much more likely to say they have no opinion.

The greater opposition to gay marriage among older Americans reflects this greater uncertainty and lack of familiarity more than it does any moral or religious opposition to the idea. In fact, people over age 65 are no more likely to cite moral or religious reasons than are younger respondents when asked to explain why they oppose gay marriage. Instead, older generations tend to explain their position either in reference to the definition of marriage being between a man and a woman or for the purposes of having children, or with vague references to homosexuality just being wrong or not normal.

Civil Unions Also Opposed

Granting some legal rights to gay couples is somewhat more acceptable than gay marriage, though most Americans (51%) oppose that idea. Public views on giving legal rights to gay and lesbian couples depend a good deal on the context in which the question is asked. On the survey, half of respondents were asked their views on civil unions after being asked about gay marriage, and half were asked the questions in the reverse order. When respondents have already had the opportunity to express their opposition to gay marriage on the survey, more feel comfortable with allowing some legal rights as an alternative. But when respondents are asked about legal rights without this context, they draw a firmer line.

This context difference has little effect on core support and opposition to gay marriage itself, which is opposed by nearly two-to-one regardless of how the questions are sequenced. But opponents of gay marriage are much more willing to accept the idea of some legal rights after they have had the opportunity to express their opposition to gay marriage. The percent favoring legal rights rises to 45% in this context, while just 37% favor the idea alone. Put in other words, opponents of gay marriage are much more likely to accept allowing some legal rights when they have already had the opportunity to express their opposition to gay marriage itself.

Those who oppose gay marriage but favor allowing legal rights to gay and lesbian couples offer different explanations for their opposition to gay marriage than those who oppose both ideas. People who oppose both gay marriage and the option of civil unions are much more likely to explain their position in terms of homosexuality being morally wrong, a sin, or simply unnatural. People who oppose gay marriage but favor the idea of giving gay and lesbian couples legal rights outside o
f marriage say they oppose gay marriage because the definition of marriage is a union between a man and a woman, that the purpose of marriage is to have children or that allowing gay marriage might undermine the traditional family structure.

While allowing legal rights is acceptable to a greater number of Americans than marriage itself, there is no evidence that this distinction has particular relevance to specific groups. While overall levels of support vary dramatically by age, religion and religiosity, region, and political party, the gap between support for gay marriage and legal rights varies little.

Long-Term Trend: Growing Tolerance

Numerous survey organizations have tracked public attitudes toward homosexuality in a variety of ways, and virtually all measures show the same pattern. While many Americans harbor concerns about legalizing gay marriage, the public is a much more tolerant toward homosexuals than it was twenty years ago.

In 1987, the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found Americans divided over whether school boards should (51%) or should not (42%) be allowed to fire teachers based on their sexual preference. Today, Americans reject this idea by nearly two-to-one (62% to 33%). While significant differences remain across partisan, religious, and generational lines, all segments of American society have become less willing to allow this kind of explicit job discrimination, even in schools.

Since 1973, the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has been tracking whether Americans believe sexual relations between adults of the same sex are always wrong, almost always wrong, sometimes wrong, or not wrong at all. The most recent wave of the GSS in 2002 found a slight majority (53%) saying that homosexual relations are always wrong, down from 74% as recently as 1987. The proportion saying homosexual relations are not wrong at all has nearly tripled, from 12% to 32%, over the same time span.

Throughout the nearly thirty years in which the GSS has been tracking public attitudes, very few Americans see shades of gray on the issue of homosexuality. At no point has more than 15% of the public said that sexual relations are “almost always” or “sometimes” wrong. In every survey, more than eight-in-ten Americans have said homosexuality is either always or never wrong.

The Gallup Organization has tracked two general items about homosexuality for more than twenty years, and both also show increasing acceptance of homosexuals and homosexuality. In May 2003, Gallup found 88% saying that homosexual men and women should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, up from 71% in 1989 and 56% in 1977. Asked whether homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle or not, 54% said “yes” in May of this year, up from 34% in 1982. However, Gallup measured some backlash on this item following the Supreme Court decision in June regarding state sodomy laws. The percent saying homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle in Gallup’s July survey fell to 46%.

Global Views on Homosexuality

While Americans have become more accepting toward homosexuality over the past few decades, Americans are significantly less tolerant than citizens of most other advanced democracies in Europe and North America. In 2002, the Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed public attitudes across a wide range of social and political issues in 44 nations, and found that the question of homosexuality highlights a stark global divide over social values.

Openness toward homosexuality is most widespread in the Western European nations of France, Britain, Italy and Germany, where more say homosexuality should be accepted by society than not by well over three-to-one. Residents of Canada, as well as the Czech and Slovak Republics also take an overwhelmingly accepting position on the issue of homosexuality.

Americans, by comparison, are split on this issue. A bare majority of Americans (51%) believe homosexuality should be accepted, while 42% disagree. In this regard, American attitudes have less in common with Western Europe or Canada than with Latin America, where opinion is also largely divided.

Across Africa, and in most predominantly Muslim nations such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, lopsided majorities believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society. There is similar opposition to social acceptance in India, Vietnam and South Korea.