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Pew Poll on civil unions, gay marriage

October 16, 2009

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life,

A clear majority of Americans (57%) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples, a status commonly known as civil unions. This finding marks a slight uptick in support for civil unions and appears to continue a significant long-term trend since the question was first asked in Pew Research Center surveys in 2003, when support for civil unions stood at 45%.

Over the past year, support for civil unions has grown significantly among those who oppose same-sex marriage (24% in August 2008 to 30% in 2009) while remaining stable among those who favor same-sex marriage. At the same time, opponents of same-sex marriage continue to outnumber supporters overall. An August 2009 Pew Research Center survey finds that 53% oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, compared with 39% who support same-sex marriage, numbers that are virtually unchanged over the past year.

Supporters of same-sex marriage are divided over the best way to pursue its legalization; 45% favor pushing hard to legalize it as soon as possible, while 42% of same-sex marriage advocates say they should not push too hard to legalize same-sex marriages right away because this might risk creating a backlash against gays and lesbians.

The recent national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public life, conducted Aug. 11-27 among 4,013 adults reached on both landlines and cell phones, also finds that half of the public (49%) says homosexual behavior is morally wrong, while 9% say it is morally acceptable and 35% say it is not a moral issue. Those who say it is morally wrong are less supportive of same-sex marriage (11% in favor compared with 70% of those who have no moral qualms about homosexuality) and civil unions (33% in favor compared with 82% of those who have no qualms about homosexuality).

Same-Sex Marriage Issue Continues to Divide

Attitudes on same-sex marriage currently stand almost exactly where they did 12 months ago, with just over half of Americans (53%) opposed and 39% in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. There are stark differences of opinion among the public on this issue, especially among religious and political groups. For example, more than seven-in-ten liberal Democrats (72%) favor same-sex marriage, while eight-in-ten conservative Republicans (81%) oppose it.

More than three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants (77%) and two-thirds of black Protestants (66%) oppose same-sex marriage, as do half of white mainline Protestants (50%). Catholics are evenly divided on the issue, with 45% favoring same-sex marriage and 43% opposing it. Most of those unaffiliated with any particular religion support same-sex marriage (60%).

Overall, a strong majority of those who attend services at least weekly oppose same-sex marriage (71%), while about half of those who seldom or never attend religious services favor it (54%). This pattern is evident within Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. Most regularly attending white Catholics in the survey oppose same-sex marriage, while most white Catholics who attend Mass less often favor it. Among white evangelicals, 85% of those who attend services at least weekly oppose same-sex marriage, 21 percentage points higher than among less-observant white evangelicals.

Public opinion on this issue also varies according to age, sex, race and education. Most young people (ages 18-29) favor same-sex marriage (58%), while majorities in older age groups oppose it. Women are more likely than men to support same-sex marriage (43% vs. 34%), and whites and Hispanics are more supportive than blacks (39%, 45% and 26% respectively). Among those in the survey with a college education, a 49% plurality favors same-sex marriage, while half or more of those with less education oppose it.

Most Southerners and Midwesterners oppose same-sex marriage (60% and 54% respectively). By contrast, people who reside in the West and the East are evenly divided on the issue (47% favor vs. 47% oppose in the West, 45% favor vs. 45% oppose in the East).
Advocates Split on Strategy

Gay Marriage Supporters Disagree on Strategy

The 39% of Americans who favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry are evenly divided over how hard supporters should push to legalize same-sex marriage. Roughly four-in-ten (42%) say that supporters should not push too hard to make it legal right away because doing so could create bad feelings against homosexuals. A similar number (45%), however, say that supporters of same-sex marriage should push hard to make it legal as soon as possible, despite the risk of creating bad feelings against gays and lesbians. There has been a slight decline since 2006 in the number of same-sex marriage supporters favoring a hard push to legalize same-sex marriage right away (from 51% to 45% in 2009).
Most Favor Civil Unions
Civil Unions

Currently, support for civil unions stands at an all time high in Pew Research Center surveys, with 57% favoring them and 37% opposed to allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements with each other, giving them many of the same rights as married couples. This marks a slight increase in support for civil unions.

Among most political groups, half or more support civil unions, including 59% of moderate and liberal Republicans, 63% of independents, 54% of moderate and conservative Democrats and 76% of liberal Democrats. The only exception to this pattern is conservative Republicans, among whom a slim majority (53%) opposes civil unions.

Most white evangelicals oppose civil unions (57%), with opposition especially concentrated among the most-observant white evangelicals (67% among those who attend church at least weekly). Black Protestants are divided on the issue, with 43% in favor of civil unions and 49% opposed. Most other religious groups favor civil unions, including observant white Catholics (55%) and observant white mainline Protestants (57%). Among the religiously unaffiliated, more than two-thirds (68%) favor civil unions.

Among those who oppose same-sex marriage, three-in-ten (30%) say they would support civil unions. A majority of same-sex marriage opponents, however, still oppose civil unions (66%). Among those who favor same-sex marriage, nearly all (94%) favor civil unions.

Two-thirds of those under age 30 (68%) support civil unions, the highest level of support among any age group. College graduates are also much more supportive of civil unions (70%) than are those with a high school education or less (47%).

Majorities of both men (54%) and women (60%) favor civil unions. Whites also largely support civil unions (61%), while blacks and Hispanics are more evenly divided on the issue.

Gay Marriage Opponents Increase Support for Civil Unions

Overall support for civil unions has grown over the past year among those who oppose same-sex marriage. There has been a six-point increase in support for civil unions (from 24% to 30%) among same-sex marriage opponents, while the figure among those in favor of same-sex marriage has not changed substantially. Support for civil unions is also up significantly among Republicans (from 40% in 2008 to 48% in 2009). Support has remained relatively stable among independents and Democrats, with six-in-ten among both groups expressing support for such arrangements.

Homosexual Behavior and Morality

Nearly half of the public (49%) says homosexual behavior is morally wrong, while 9% say it is morally acceptable and 35% say it is not a moral issue. A similar number says abortion is morally wrong (52%), while far fewer see moral impropriety in divorce (29%) or drinking alcohol (15%).

Blacks are much more likely to think that homosexuality is morally wrong (64%) than whites (48%) or Hispanics (43%). At least half of those ages 30 and older say homosexuality is wrong, compared with fewer than four-in-ten (38%) among those under age 30. And a slim majority of Americans with a high school education or less see homosexual behavior as morally wrong (55%), compared with fewer than half among those with a college degree (40%) or some college education (46%).

Assessments of morality are divided sharply along partisan lines. For example, three-quarters of conservative Republicans say homosexual behavior is wrong. By contrast, nearly as many liberal Democrats (70%) say either that homosexuality is morally acceptable (13%) or that it is not a moral issue (57%).

Among religious groups, 76% of white evangelical Protestants and 65% of black Protestants believe homosexuality is morally wrong; mainline Protestants (40%), Catholics (39%) and the unaffiliated (29%) are much less likely to take this view. Views also differ markedly by level of worship service attendance. Overall, two-thirds of those who attend services at least weekly say homosexual behavior is morally wrong, compared with 43% of those who attend services monthly or yearly and 31% of those who seldom or never attend. The same is true within religious traditions. For example, among Catholics, a slim majority of weekly Mass attenders (53%) say homosexual behavior is morally wrong, while among those who attend less often, a majority (65%) say it is not a moral issue or is morally acceptable.

Moral Views Underpin Policy Positions

Americans who see homosexual behavior as morally wrong are much less supportive of same-sex marriage and civil unions than are those who believe such behavior is morally acceptable or is not a moral issue. Only 11% of those who say homosexual behavior is morally wrong favor same-sex marriage, compared with 70% of those who have no moral objection to homosexual behavior. Likewise, only a third who believe homosexual behavior is wrong favor civil unions, compared with more than eight-in-ten (82%) of those who say homosexual behavior is morally acceptable or is not a moral issue.
Discrimination Against Gays and Lesbians

Many See Gays and Lesbians Facing Discrimination

More than six-in-ten Americans (64%) say gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination, more than any other group asked about in the August 2009 survey. Gays and lesbians are seen as facing more discrimination than Muslims (58%), Hispanics (52%) or blacks (49%). Even fewer say there is a lot of discrimination against women (37%), evangelical Christians (27%), atheists (26%) or Mormons (24%).

Younger people perceive more discrimination against gays and lesbians than their elders: 80% of those under 30 say there is a lot of discrimination against gays and lesbians, compared with roughly six-in-ten of those ages 30 to 64 and just over half those age 65 and older (54%). Women are more likely than men to say gays face discrimination (68% vs. 59%). Three-quarters of Democrats (74%) say that gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination, as do 59% of independents and 58% of Republicans.

Lot of Discrimination Against Gays and Lesbians?

Compared with views on same-sex marriage and civil unions, there is more agreement among the largest religious groups about the level of discrimination faced by gays and lesbians. Roughly six-in-ten white evangelical and mainline Protestants (57% and 61%) and Catholics (60%) say there is a lot of discrimination, as do 69% of those who are unaffiliated with a particular religion.
About the Survey

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a nationwide sample of 4,013 adults, 18 years of age or older. Interviews were conducted in two waves, the first from August 11-17, 2009 (Survey A) and the second from August 20-27, 2009 (Survey B). In total, 3,012 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 1,001 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 347 who had no landline telephone. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Both the landline and cell phone samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see http://people-press.org/methodology/.

The combined landline and cell phone sample is weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, region, and population density to parameters from the March 2008 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The sample is also weighted to match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2008 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the sample.

The following table shows the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey. Most of the questions analyzed in this report were asked in Survey A only. The topline survey results included at the end of this report clearly indicate whether each question in the survey was asked of the full sample, Survey A only or Survey B only.
Methodology table

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

Additional results from the survey have been released in previous reports and will be released in subsequent reports.

About the Projects

This survey is a joint effort of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Both organizations are sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and are projects of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press is an independent opinion research group that studies attitudes toward the press, politics and public policy issues. The Center’s purpose is to serve as a forum for ideas on the media and public policy through public opinion research. In this role it serves as an important information resource for political leaders, journalists, scholars, and public interest organizations. All of the Center’s current survey results are made available free of charge.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. It studies public opinion, demographics and other important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. It also provides a neutral venue for discussions of timely issues through roundtables and briefings.

This report is a collaborative product based on the input and analysis of the following individuals:

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Luis Lugo, Director
Alan Cooperman and Sandra Stencel, Associate Directors
John C. Green and Gregory Smith, Senior Researchers
Allison Pond and Neha Sahgal, Research Associates
Scott Clement, Research Analyst
Tracy Miller and Sara Tisdale, Editors

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
Andrew Kohut, Director
Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research
Carroll Doherty and Michael Dimock, Associate Directors
Michael Remez, Senior Writer
Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Robert Suls, Shawn Neidorf, Leah Melani Christian, Jocelyn Kiley and Kathleen Holzwart, Research Associates
Alec Tyson and Jacob Poushter, Research Analysts

  
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Discuss this article

Eli October 16, 2009

What I see is that Americans take a long time to not make up their mind.

GoJo October 16, 2009

I wonder fio the people beign polled knew what civil unions means? It is such a big complex issue with many forms. I am not even sure i know what it means.

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