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Plenty of Americans dislike gay marriage yet still support equal rights

March 31, 2013|By Doyle McManus
  • Kevin Coyne of Washington, D.C. holds flags in front of the Supreme Court on March 27.
Kevin Coyne of Washington, D.C. holds flags in front of the Supreme Court… (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo )

In my Sunday column, I explored the possible consequence of the Supreme Court's impending rulings on gay marriage: a patchwork of different laws in different states, making life very complicated for gay couples who want to move from one part of the country to another.

But the general trend of public opinion toward greater acceptance of same-sex couples is clear. And there’s one subset of the population that's especially intriguing: people who say homosexuality violates their religious beliefs yet are nevertheless inclined to allow gay unions as a matter of civil law. Call them “libertarian traditionalists”: culturally conservative in their own lives, but upholding equal rights for those who don’t share their values.

How big is this group? Perhaps surprisingly, more than 1 in 4 Americans hold those seemingly conflicted opinions – at least when it comes to the general principle of equal rights for gay couples.

TIMELINE: Gay marriage chronology

In an invaluable series of recent polls, the Pew Research Center has not only tracked the sea change in public opinion on homosexuality, but has broken it down into constituent parts.

Pew polls in 2012 and 2013 found that 48% of Americans now favor allowing allowing gays and Lesbians to marry legally, compared to 43% who are opposed. (Surveys performed more recently find even higher numbers in favor. An ABC News-Washington Post poll last month, for example, found 58% supporting gay marriage.)

The value in the large-sample Pew surveys is the level of detail they offer. Pew found that majorities of both Democrats (61%) and independents (53%) favor gay marriage; self-identified Republicans (25%) are distinct outliers by comparison.

Pew found that “cross-pressured” opinion – people who oppose gay marriage in principle but support equal rights for homosexuals in practice – is more than a blip. Most respondents in the Pew polls (56%) say same-sex marriage conflicts with their religious beliefs; but half of the people in that group (28% of the public overall) also believe that same-sex couples "should have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples."

That means more than 1 in 4 Americans are holding two seemingly contradictory ideas: that gay marriage conflicts with their religious beliefs, but same-sex couples should have the same rights as others. That pattern holds true for 29% of Republicans and 29% of evangelical Christians too.

But maybe that view isn’t as contradictory as it seems. In my column, I quoted Timothy Keller, pastor of an evangelical church in Manhattan, saying “You can believe that homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage can be legal.” Keller doesn’t favor gay marriage; he was merely describing what he called an increasingly common view among young Protestant conservatives.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s commission on ethics and religious liberty, outlined the same phenomenon in a recent interview with Politico. “Basically, they just don’t think it’s something we want to talk about,” he said of younger evangelicals. “[They say,] ‘It feels intolerant. We believe what we believe; they have a right to what they want to believe. Marriage should be a church thing, not a legal thing.’”


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