A same sex marriage advocate waves a rainbow flag at a protest in Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/AP )
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two widely anticipated landmark rulings that were victories for gay rights advocates: striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that banned federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in their state and declining to rule on California’s Proposition 8, which moves California into position to join the ranks of the 12 other states plus the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal.
Clearly, the rapidly shifting public opinion on same-sex marriage influenced the decisions (even as the public is evenly divided about whether the court should take public opinion in to account). Yesterday’s rulings would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. While the general population trends have been well covered, the way those trends have altered the American religious landscape has received less attention.
If we rewind the clock back to 2006—two years after the nation witnessed 12 states banning same-sex marriage in a single election cycle—the debate seemed destined to remain one between secular Americas who supported same-sex marriage and religious Americans who did not. More than six-in-10 (63 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans supported same-sex marriage, but not a single major religious group approached majority support. Among religious Americans, support ranged from a high of 41 percent among white mainline Protestants, to a low of only 12 percent among white evangelical Protestants (Pew Research Center, 2006).
But the debate can no longer be described as one between nonreligious and religious Americans. Support for same-sex marriage has risen by double digits in every major religious group since 2006. Today, solid majorities of Catholics (57 percent)—including equal proportions of white Catholics (58 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (59 percent)—and white mainline Protestants (55 percent) have joined the religiously unaffiliated (76 percent) in supporting same-sex marriage (PRRI, March 2013). The National Cathedral, which is affiliated with the mainline Episcopal Church, rang its bells at noon on Wednesday in support of the DOMA ruling and opened its doors for a special service for LGBT families and their allies “to celebrate the extension of federal marriage equality to all the same-sex couples modeling God’s love in lifelong covenants.”
To be sure, there is still significant religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Less then four-in-10 (37 percent) black Protestants and only one-quarter of white evangelical Protestants (24 percent) support it. Fully seven-in-10 (71 percent) white evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage, and nearly half (46 percent) say they strongly oppose it.
But even this continued opposition to same-sex marriage among the most conservative religious groups does not tell the entire story. Although black Protestants overall do not support same-sex marriage, among the seven-in-10 who know of President Obama’s support for the issue, a majority (53 percent) say they approve of Obama’s position. Most notable, though, is this finding: a slim majority (51 percent) of young white evangelical Protestants (ages 18-34) now support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.
If there are literal bells ringing in support of same-sex marriage among mainline Protestants, these unheralded but significant numbers toll the fading future of religious opposition to same-sex marriage.