PRINCETON, NJ -- Even as a majority of Americans believe homosexuality ought to be an "acceptable alternative lifestyle," only 40% currently say marriage between same-sex couples should be legal; 56% disagree.
The issue has been brought to the fore by Thursday's California Supreme Court decision to overturn a state ban on gay marriage, making California only the second state in the nation to legally recognize such marriages. Massachusetts blazed this trail with passage of a gay marriage act in 2004.
Public support for legalizing gay marriage is somewhat higher today than what Gallup found at the outset of polling on the subject 12 years ago. In 1996, about one in four Americans thought marriages between homosexuals should be recognized by the law as valid. That increased to 35% in 1999 and to 42% in 2004. However, for the past four years, public support has failed to grow in a linear fashion; rather, it has fluctuated between 37% and 46%.
While the California and Massachusetts laws are out of step with national cultural norms on gay marriage, these states represent the two regions of the country -- the West and East -- that show the greatest support for legalizing gay marriage. Solid majorities of residents of the Midwest and South oppose it.
Split Decision on a Constitutional Ban
The Massachusetts gay marriage law was met by a call for a constitutional amendment in that state to define marriage as between a man and woman -- something President Bush has advocated at the national level as well. There is already an initiative underway in California to put such an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot this fall.
The effort to constitutionally limit marriage to heterosexual couples failed in the Massachusetts legislature last June, but on a national basis, Gallup finds Americans evenly divided. About half (49%) favor a constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage, while 48% are opposed.
Twenty-Six Percent vs. 2% at the Ballot Box
At the same time, politically, it seems that the anti-gay marriage faction has the advantage, benefiting from much greater intensity of feeling on the part of its supporters. One in four of those who are opposed to legal recognition of same-sex marriages (26%) say they will vote only for candidates for major office who share their view on the issue. By contrast, only 2% of those who favor making same-sex marriage legal define themselves as one-issue voters on the subject.
Tolerance for Gays
While gays battle for the right to marry, they enjoy near-universal support for equal job rights.
Also, basic acceptance of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle has expanded over the years, after registering only 34% in 1982. Today, 57% of Americans agree that homosexuality should be considered acceptable, matching last year's record high.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 8-11, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
For results based on the 513 national adults in the Form A half-sample and 504 national adults in the Form B half-sample, the maximum margins of sampling error are ±5 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
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