As support for gay marriage continues to increase, nearly three-quarters of Americans – 72% – say that legal recognition of same-sex marriage is “inevitable.” This includes 85% of gay marriage supporters, as well as 59% of its opponents.
The national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted May 1-5 among 1,504 adults, finds that support for same-sex marriage continues to grow: For the first time in Pew Research Center polling, just over half (51%) of Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Yet the issue remains divisive, with 42% saying they oppose legalizing gay marriage. Opposition to gay marriage – and to societal acceptance of homosexuality more generally – is rooted in religious attitudes, such as the belief that engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.
At the same time, more people today have gay or lesbian acquaintances, which is associated with acceptance of homosexuality and support for gay marriage. Nearly nine-in-ten Americans (87%) personally know someone who is gay or lesbian (up from 61% in 1993). About half (49%) say a close family member or one of their closest friends is gay or lesbian. About a quarter (23%) say they know a lot of people who are gay or lesbian, and 31% know a gay or lesbian person who is raising children. The link between these experiences and attitudes about homosexuality is strong. For example, roughly two-thirds (68%) of those who know a lot of people who are gay or lesbian favor gay marriage, compared with just 32% of those who don’t know anyone.
Part of this is a matter of who is more likely to have many gay acquaintances: the young, city dwellers, women, and the less religious, for example. But even taking these factors into account, the relationship between personal experiences and acceptance of homosexuality is a strong one.
Yet opposition to gay marriage remains substantial, and religious beliefs are a major factor in opposition. Just under half of Americans (45%) say they think engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin, while an equal number says it is not. Those who believe homosexual behavior is a sin overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage. Similarly, those who say they personally feel there is a lot of conflict between their religious beliefs and homosexuality (35% of the public) are staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage.
The survey finds that as support for same-sex marriage has risen, other attitudes about homosexuality have changed as well. In a 2004 Los Angeles Times poll, most Americans (60%) said they would be upset if they had a child who told them that they were gay or lesbian; 33% said they would be very upset over this. Today, 40% say they would be upset if they learned they had a gay or lesbian child, and just 19% would be very upset.
Favorable opinions of both gay men and lesbians have risen since 2003. Moreover, by nearly two-to-one (60% to 31%), more Americans say that homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged by society. A decade ago, opinions about societal acceptance of homosexuality were evenly divided (47% accepted, 45% discouraged).
The religious basis for opposition to homosexuality is seen clearly in the reasons people give for saying it should be discouraged by society. By far the most frequently cited factors –mentioned by roughly half (52%) of those who say homosexuality should be discouraged – are moral objections to homosexuality, that it conflicts with religious beliefs, or that it goes against the Bible. No more than about one-in-ten cite any other reasons as to why homosexuality should be discouraged by society.
Widespread Belief that Legal Recognition Is ‘Inevitable’
By contrast, large majorities across most demographic groups think that legal recognition of same-sex marriage is inevitable.
Republicans (73%) are as likely as Democrats (72%) or independents (74%) to view legal recognition for gay marriage as inevitable. Just 31% of Republicans favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, compared with majorities of Democrats (59%) and independents (58%).
Similarly, people 65 and older are 30 points more likely to view legal recognition of same-sex marriage as inevitable than to favor it (69% vs. 39%). Among those younger than 30, about as many see legal same-sex marriage as inevitable as support gay marriage (69%, 65%).
Just 22% of white evangelical Protestants favor same-sex marriage, but about three times that percentage (70%) thinks legal recognition for gay marriage is inevitable. Among other religious groups, there are smaller differences in underlying opinions about gay marriage and views of whether it is inevitable.