Signs display messages about gay marriage in front of the Devon Park United… (Ken Blevins / The Star-News )
News about same-sex marriage has pointed in two opposite directions recently.
Today, unless preelection polls prove drastically wrong, voters in North Carolina will approve a constitutional amendment to ban not only same-sex marriages, but also civil unions as well. On the other hand, for weeks, national Democratic politicians have been virtually tripping over themselves to declare their support for marriage equality, seeking to get ahead of what they see as a shift in public opinion.
Which more accurately gauges where the majority of Americans stand?
The answer, polls suggests, depends a great deal on where in the country you’re asking that question.
Nationally, roughly half of all Americans say they support allowing same-sex couples to marry. A newly released Gallup poll puts the split at 50% in favor, 48% opposed. A Pew Research Center poll released two weeks ago had a similar 47%-43% division.
Both of those national surveys, as well as polls done by other organizations, reflect a sharp jump in recent years in support for same-sex marriage. In 2004, for example, Pew found Americans opposed gay marriage by a nearly 2-1 margin. Such a large and sudden shift in public opinion on a fundamental issue of social policy is extremely rare and reflects two trends that have overlapped -- younger Americans are far more supportive of same-sex marriage than their elders, and middle-aged Americans have shifted their views.
But the shift has not happened evenly across the country. The sharpest divide involves religious observance. People who attend religious services weekly or more often continue to oppose same-sex marriage by about 2 to 1, according to Gallup’s most recent poll. By contrast, people who seldom or never attend religious services support marriage equality by 2 to 1. Protestants are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than Catholics.
Not surprisingly, then, states that have large percentages of Protestant residents who attend church regularly -- in the South, for example -- remain strongly resistant to changing marriage laws. By contrast, states with large secular populations have been most receptive to gay marriage.
North Carolina, a state where 44% of voters in 2008 described themselves as white evangelicals, according to exit polls, is a tough arena for supporters of same-sex marriage.
By contrast, in Maryland, which is expected to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage in November, only one-third of voters in 2008 said they attended religious services at least weekly, while 50% said they did so only a few times a year or less. Three other states are expected to vote on same-sex marriage this fall -- Maine, Minnesota and Washington -- all three are more secular than North Carolina. In Minnesota, for example, only 29% of voters in 2008 described themselves as white, evangelicals.
Maryland’s vote could test one other division among voters on same-sex marriage -- race. About one-quarter of the state’s voters are African American, and blacks have been more resistant to changing the definition of marriage than whites. In Pew’s survey, blacks opposed gay marriage by 39% to 49%. But that gap of 10 percentage points marked a major improvement for supporters of marriage equality. Just four years earlier, the gap among blacks had been 27 percentage points.