Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Support for gay marriage up among black Protestants in last year, flat among white evangelicals

Views of same-sex marriage by religion

The long-standing tension between religious beliefs and the idea of same-sex marriage has been a key factor at play behind recently proposed bills in several states, most visibly in Arizona, aimed at protecting business owners who have religious objections to same-sex marriage. At the same time, however, new Pew Research Center data from 2014 show that just within the past year, growing shares of some Christian groups favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

The sharpest change has occurred among black Protestants, only 32% of whom favored same-sex marriage in our aggregated 2013 polling. A survey we conducted last month found that figure has now risen to 43%.

There also has been an uptick in support for same-sex marriage among white mainline Protestants (from 55% in 2013 to 62% this year). Debates are ongoing within some mainline churches about whether to conduct same-sex marriages.

Perhaps reflecting the changing views of the laity, the head United Methodist Church bishop in New York announced last week that he will end trials in his region of ministers who officiate same-sex weddings against official church teaching. But other church leaders do not appear ready to take such steps: Later last week, formal complaints were filed at the request of the denomination’s Council of Bishops against a retired bishop who performed a wedding for two Alabama men in October.

Although the changes among Catholics in the past year have not been statistically significant, support for same-sex marriage has increased among that group over the past several years. Roughly six-in-ten U.S. Catholics (59%) now favor same-sex marriage.

Despite a modest increase over the past decade, white evangelical Protestants are the main exception to the more recent trend of growing support for same-sex marriage. The new poll found that 23% of this group supports same-sex marriage, the same share as last year.

The changes – or lack thereof – among these groups come amid a quickly shifting legal landscape on the issue. Since the beginning of 2013, eight states have legalized same-sex marriage and the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, requiring the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages from the 17 states where they are legal (plus the District of Columbia). Pending court appeals could lead to legal same-sex marriages in several more states.