Could victory in court mean loss in public support?

Patrick Egan

Patrick Egan

An informal survey by the Washington Post published June 18 asked a tiny number of well-placed experts—six—to say what they think will happen if federal Judge Vaughn Walker overturns California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Two of the six pointed to existing polling data to warn of the potential for a negative impact.

Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, said Pew’s previous polling data predicts “backlash.” Those polls, and others, have historically shown LGBT victories in court lead to an increase in public opposition to same-sex marriage. It happened after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state sodomy laws (in June 2003). It happened after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled gay couples had a constitutional right to marriage equality (in November 2003). And even before Walker issues his decision, said Keeter, polls indicate the public opinion climate “remains chilly” for same-sex marriage.

Joe Mathews, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a political think tank, said that, while public opinion is trending in favor of marriage equality, “a divisive court decision that gets too far ahead of voters could prolong the fight over same-sex marriage for a generation or more. . . .”

“If judges strongly support overturning Prop 8 at each stage of the appeal, this emerging judicial consensus that gay-marriage bans are unconstitutional would speed acceptance of such unions across the country,” wrote Mathews. “But if Prop 8 is overturned by a narrowly and nastily divided U.S. Supreme Court, say 5 to 4, such a decision could conceivably do more harm than good.”

So, where is public opinion on same-sex marriage right now?

Two recent reports shed some light on that, and some doubt.

First, the light: The 2010 Values and Beliefs survey, which Gallup conducts every May, indicated that 52 percent of adults surveyed consider “gay and lesbian relations” to be “morally acceptable,” compared to 43 percent who said they are “morally wrong.” Five percent had no response or had some other opinion. The results were based on random telephone interviews with 1,029 adults conducted between May 3 and 6, 2010. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The 52 percent saying “morally acceptable” was up three points over 2009, when 49 percent said “morally acceptable.” And the percentage saying “morally wrong” was down four points—from 47 percent in 2009 to 43 percent this year. (Five percent no opinion or other response in 2009.)

This year was the first time since Gallup began asking the question that more than 50 percent of Americans said they believe “gay and lesbian relations” are morally acceptable.

“What’s different this year is that the spread between ‘morally acceptable’ and ‘morally wrong’ is a whole lot bigger,” says Lee Badgett, a professor of Economics at UMass Amherst, and the research director at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA. It was a nine-point spread this year, compared to only a two-point spread last year.

“The question is,” said Badgett, “will that turn out to be a tipping point or not?”

Gallup polling data shows the “morally acceptable” response has been on a steady trend upward since 2004. It took a six-point dive in 2004, just six months after the Massachusetts high court issued its landmark marriage equality decision.

The percentage of Americans who consider gay relations to be “morally wrong”—43 percent—is the lowest it’s been in a decade. And also for the first time, a larger percent of men said “morally acceptable” than women—53 percent of men and 51 percent of women now believe “gay and lesbian relations” are morally acceptable.

The change in men’s attitudes was striking. In May 2006, 39 percent of men polled said they felt “homosexual relations” were morally acceptable. By this year, that number had jumped to 53 percent. That’s a 14-point jump, while, over the same period, acceptance among women increased just 2 percent.

Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA who studies the LGBT population, cautions against putting too much stock in one poll. But, he says, “a variety of polls have been showing, depending on the wording, increased amounts of acceptance towards LGB and, in some cases, T people. That acceptance has gone up in both men and women.”

To a certain degree, the improvements could have something to do with the fact that Gallup’s wording changed in 2008, from “homosexual relations” to “gay and lesbian relations.” According to Gates and Badgett, people respond differently in polls on gay issues depending on the way questions are asked. Questions about “homosexuals” tend to receive more of a negative reaction than the same questions about “gays and lesbians.”

“The closer you get to people having to think about sex,” said Gates, “the worse gay people do in polls.”

But experts agree say there is probably no single reason for this change in how men are polling, but rather a number of contributing factors.

“Some of it is exposure,” says Mark Stevens, a psychologist at California State University in Northridge. “Guys are growing up where they have friends who are gay. There is a little bit more in the media, on the TV. And it’s kind of cool to be a little bit more liberal and a little bit more accepting.”

Gates agrees that exposure is likely a big part of it, though not just for men.

“We know that a higher proportion of gay people are being more open and being more open at younger ages. And we do know that knowing gay people or having a relationship with an LGBT person does actually have an impact on people’s broader attitudes.”

Age is, and always has been, a factor, something that was clear in the survey’s results. Younger men (like younger women) are generally more accepting than their parents and grandparents.

In addition to the increase in acceptance among men, the Gallup poll also found improved attitudes towards gays and lesbians among every other sub-group polled: from Catholics to Protestants, Democrats to Independents, moderates to conservatives.

Though the degree to which those views shifted differed greatly, it’s evident that there is a steady, gradual shift taking place in the way Americans view gay and lesbian relationships and civil rights for gay people. In fact, Gallup’s polling this year shows the public views “gay and lesbian relations” as more morally acceptable than doctor-assisted suicide (46 percent) and less than having a baby outside of marriage (54 percent).

But what about legalizing marriages for same-sex couples?

While the Gallup poll showed 52 percent of people said they consider “gay and lesbian relations” to be “morally acceptable” and 58 percent said those relations should be “legal,” only 44 percent said such marriages should be recognized. That is up four points from 2009, and up 16 points since 1996, when Gallup first began asking about gay marriage specifically. The Gallup polling on gay marriage is now approximately where it was for interracial marriage in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The balance in favor interracial marriage crossed its tipping point with the 1991 survey –when 48 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved marriage between blacks and whites.

But do people’s attitudes necessarily translate into how they are likely to vote on an issue? Not as reliably as one might expect.

Political scientist Patrick Egan, who has done considerable polling on gay-related political issues, examined the results of 167 pre-election polls on 32 different ballot measures concerning either same-sex marriage or domestic partnerships. He found that pre-election polls “consistently underestimated” the number of people who would vote for a ban on same-sex marriage—by an average of seven points. And, “the share of the public saying they intend to vote for or against these measures typically changes very little over the course” of the ballot measure campaigns.

This gap between how voters say they will vote and what they actually do in the voting booth does not appear to be a product of wanting to give the a poll-taker a socially desirable response of supporting equality for all, said Egan. He could find no evidence for that. For instance, he said, in states with large gay populations, one would expect many people who wanted to ban gay marriage would tell a pollster that they were against the ban. Voters in California, for instance, would be more likely than voters in Mississippi to say they were going to vote against the ban and then vote for it. But there was no such correlation and no other evidence emerged in Egan’s analysis to explain the gap.

Still, it’s clear Americans are becoming increasingly open and accepting and experts and polling data suggest this trend will continue—unless something happens to set opinion back.

“You never know how society is changing, and sometimes it’s not very obvious because it’s very subtle,” says Stevens. While the reasons such a shift is occurring now “might not be necessarily explainable,” he says, “it’s really good to see.”

Lisa Keen contributed to this report.

7 Responses to Could victory in court mean loss in public support?

  1. Granted, polls find that most Americans are uncomfortable with “marriage” for Gay couples. Yet ask Americans how they feel about the same benefits of marriage for Gay couples, except under a different term like “civil unions,” and support goes way up, especially among younger voters.

    So where do we strike the balance?

    Let’s say that the Supreme Court ruled that there was no Constitutional justification for denying Gay couples the same legal benefits and responsibilities that Straight couples have always taken for granted, but that those benefits and responsibilities could be granted to Gay couples under a different term … such as “civil unions.” The rights under tax law, Social Security, etc. would be EXACTLY the same for Gay and Straight couples; only the terminology would be different. Opposite-sex couples would be allowed the option to “marry,” and same-sex couples would be allowed the option to enter into “civil unions.” Social conservatives could keep the term “marriage” for themselves, and Gay couples would be granted equal protection as specified by the 14th Amendment.

    Frankly, I could live with that. How about YOU?

    Fact is, the federal government has complicated the issue more than anyone. While it is true that the Constitution says nothing about marriage, there are 1,138 legal benefits, protections, and responsibilities (according to the Government Accounting Office) that the federal government automatically bestows on married couples. Much of this has to do with tax law and Social Security. So it simply wouldn’t do for a Gay couple that is legally married in Iowa to suddenly become UN-married if they move someplace else.

    Straight couples have never had to jump through these kinds of hoops. Thanks to the “Full Faith & Credit” clause, if any Straight couple flies off to Las Vegas for a drunken weekend and gets married by an Elvis impersonator, that marriage is automatically honored in all 50 states. Gay couples, however, are held to a different (and hence unconstitutional) legal standard.

    The only way marriage can be a “States Rights” issue is for the federal government to get out of the marriage business completely, and do away with the 1,138 benefits it grants to married couples. Tell me how thrilled most married couples would be with THAT.

  2. Bill Wenham says:

    And actually, Chuck, domestic partnership laws in California are not the same. If it was, a same-sex couple would not have to live together to be in a domestic partnership whereas a married couple doesn’t even have to live together. People can act like everything is the same, but it still isn’t. If it was, it would be called marriage, plain and simple.

  3. John says:

    This article has nothing relevant to offer.

    Public opinion always follows the courts and NOT the other way around.

    When California was the first state to strike down Jim Crow anti-miscegenation laws in Perez v. Sharp (1948) the nation was in shock. Over 90 of Americans were appalled. Twenty years later when the U.S. Supreme Court struck them all down in Loving v. Virginia (1967) as to the 17 remaining states things had not changed. Still over 90% of the American public was outraged – and that was AFTER the vast majority of states and already struck them down or repealed them! Today, few object. Why? Because public opinion follows the Court.

  4. John says:

    Chuck wrote:

    “Thanks to the “Full Faith & Credit” clause, if any Straight couple flies off to Las Vegas for a drunken weekend and gets married by an Elvis impersonator, that marriage is automatically honored in all 50 states.”


    No state has to recognize a marriage that is against state policy. E.g. If legally married in a state where the ‘wife’ is under 16 (permitted in some states) but, moves to California this state will not only not recognized because it’s against public policy. In addition the purported husband may be prosecuted for statutory rape. As a matter of ‘states rights,’ no state is required to recognize a marriage that is against its public policy – but conversely said policy can not run afoul of the U. S. Constitution because the Constitution trumps ‘states’ right. State’s rights are a limited concept.

    Second, interstate marriages are not recognize under the FF&C clause which applies to judgments and decrees (like a divorce decree) but honored under the doctrine of Comity as contained in the Privileges and immunities clause of the same article. This is one of the two reasons why DOMA is defective. First it hangs on a clause that has nothing to do with marriage and (2) since marriage is a federal ‘fundamental’ right, Congress has no more right than a state legislature to abrogate that right absent the ‘strict scrutiny’ which is almost always a ‘kiss of death’ and will be struck down. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line (no pun intended). Rather than undo state gay Jim Crow marriage laws one my one, the most effective course if to strike them all down as once – which is what we hope Perry will do. Likewise, the fastet and most direct means of getting rid of DOMA is not to waste time and money in a lengthy acrimonious debate on repealing it, but simply strike the law down as an overreaching Congressional legislative violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Striking down Prop 8 Jim Crow laws as well as DOMA in court is the fastest, cleanest, surest, and least messy way to end the dispute across the land and the fastest way to avoid and relieve suffering and hardship. The Court. The Court. The Court.

  5. John says:

    And P.S. When editors redact speech because they disagree with the syntax or form of expression they act as critics. But when they redact ‘free speech’ merely because the expression of informed opinion exposes ignorance or inconvenient hypocrisies they then act not as critics but as censors. In such case they are not arbiters of good taste but autocrats who refuse to allow any challenge to or exposure of their own provincial prejudices. This is as inappropriate as it is intellectually dishonest.

  6. MAC says:

    I just don’t think it is everyone’s business that I am gay. If I must use the term “civil union,” all people with access to my paperwork will automatically know I am gay. If I use the term “married,” my person sexual preference is still my own business. I am not in the closet, but I feel uncomfortable with this lack of personal privacy. I am a high school teacher and I like to keep my personal life personal. This is a factor that is rarely discussed. We should all be treated the same.

  7. Lisa Keen says:

    “Posting comments: Keen News Service welcomes relevant comments on its news articles. Lisa Keen has no duty to monitor and delete inappropriate comments but will, in her sole discretion, delete any comment she considers slanderous, hateful, threatening, too far off topic, aimed at promoting a commercial venture, disrespectful, or otherwise inappropriate.”
    This includes comments that use disparaging terms for reporters, activists, and other commenters.
    PS: John, I’ve tried several times to contact you via your email to convey this, but your email is always returned as undeliverable. Please feel free to contact me via email at

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