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Public Opinion on Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Unions

Within legislative and congregational bodies across the United States, questions about same-sex marriage and civil unions are being vigorously contested. Booming voices can be heard from all corners of the debate. But what is the real extent of public support behind any of the positions being advocated?

A recent survey conducted in August 2009 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International mutes the volume of these robust voices and captures the opinions of 4,013 ordinary Americans. The population surveyed were men and women 18 years and older from across the nation. These adults represent a host of diverse perspectives shaped by political, religious, educational, and racial influence. These 4,013 adults where asked about their views on same-sex marriage and civil unions, the morality or immorality of homosexuality, and the level of discrimination experienced by gays and lesbians. The surveyors estimate the margin of error to be plus or minus 2.5% in respect to these topics.

The Pew Forum report, “Majority Continues to Support Civil Unions: Most Still Oppose Same-Sex Marriage,” provides an overview of the survey and draws out the noteworthy finding that support for civil unions has increased. The August 2009 survey found that 57% of the respondents were in favor of civil unions, which is a substantial increase from the 2003 survey where 45% of the respondents were supportive. The 2009 survey also found that there has been an upsurge of support for civil unions among those who oppose same-sex marriage since the last survey conducted in 2008 (24% in 2008 to 30% in 2009).

Civil Unions

Regarding the question of civil unions, 57% of the 2009 respondents favor civil unions while 37% oppose them. Dissecting these percentages demographically reveals the following: Along political lines, Independents, conservative/moderate Democrats, liberal Democrats, and moderate/liberal Republicans support civil unions (63%, 54%, 76%, and 59% respectively) while 53% of conservative Republicans oppose civil unions. Along religious lines, mainline Protestants, white Catholics, and the religiously unaffiliated favor civil unions (57%, 55%, and 68% respectively) while white evangelicals and black Protestants are opposed (57% and 49% respectively).

Those who attend religious services once a week or more oppose civil unions markedly more often.

Along the lines of age, gender, race, and education, people 30 years and younger favor civil unions (68%) while support declines as age increases, and women express more favor than men (60% to 54% respectively). 61% of white people favor civil unions while black and Hispanic people are equally divided on the question. 70% of those with college degrees favor civil unions compared to 47% of those with high school diplomas or less.

Same-Sex Marriage

Regarding the question of same-sex marriage, the majority of respondents (53%) are opposed while 31% are in favor. Dissecting the percentages along the demographic lines outlined above reveals the following: Politically, 81% of conservative Republicans oppose same-sex marriage while 72% of liberal Democrats are in favor. It is important to note that these percentages contrast opposites of the political spectrum. Religiously, white evangelicals and black Protestants express opposition (77% and 66% respectively) along with 50% of mainline Protestants. Catholics are divided on the issue with 43% opposing and 47% favoring same-sex marriage. In stark contrast, 60% of the religiously unaffiliated express support.

The pattern seen above reappears here: frequent attendance at religious services correlates with higher rates of opposition.

Along the lines of age, gender, race, and education, support for same-sex marriage fluctuates. The majority of people over 30 oppose same-sex marriage while 58% of those 18-29 are in favor, and more women express support than men (43% and 34% respectively). 45% of Hispanic people, 39% of white people, and 26% of black people show support. And 49% of those with college education favor same-sex marriage.

These last figures flesh out the demographics of the minority view, but overall, the figures indicate that the majority of respondents surveyed in 2009 oppose the marriage of same-sex couples.

Homosexuality and Morality

The Pew Forum report concludes that the key factor determining one’s support or opposition to same-sex marriage and civil unions is one’s stance on the question of whether homosexuality is moral, immoral, or amoral. Of the 4,013 respondents, 49% find homosexuality to be immoral, 9% find it to be morally acceptable, and 35% find it to be amoral, that is, it is not considered to be a moral issue.

Politically, 75% of conservative Republicans perceive homosexuality to be morally wrong while 57% of liberal Democrats hold that homosexuality is not a moral issue. Furthermore, 13% of liberal Democrats view homosexuality as morally acceptable. Again, these percentages contrast opposites of the political spectrum. Religiously, 76% of white evangelicals, 65% of black Protestants, 40% of mainline Protestants, 39% of Catholics, and 29% of the religiously unaffiliated perceive homosexuality as morally wrong.

In accordance with the pattern discerned above, people who attend services one a week or more are more likely to hold that homosexuality is immoral.

Along the lines of age, race, and education, 38% of respondents under 30 and “at least half” of those over 30 find homosexuality to be morally wrong. 64% of black people, 48% of white people, and 43% of Hispanic people perceive homosexuality to be immoral. 55% of those with high school diplomas or less, 46% of those with some college education, and 40% of those with a college degree view homosexuality as morally wrong. Among the respondents who conceive homosexuality to be immoral, support for same-sex marriage and civil unions is low.


The Pew Forum report includes a striking section about levels of discrimination experienced by diverse populations within the United States. The respondents to the 2009 survey felt, by percentage, that the following groups experienced “a lot of discrimination:”

  • Gays and Lesbians, 64%
  • Muslims, 58%
  • Hispanics, 52%
  • Blacks, 49%
  • Women, 37%
  • Evangelical Christians, 27%
  • Atheists, 26%
  • Mormons, 24%

In summary, the Pew Forum report indicates that support for civil unions is on the rise while the majority of respondents remain opposed to same-sex marriage. A number of demographic factors (political persuasion, religious affiliation, age, gender, race, education) appear to influence the position taken on same-sex marriage and civil unions. If homosexuality is perceived to be morally wrong, support for same-sex marriage and civil unions is minimal. Furthermore, respondents recognize that the homosexual population experiences a high degree of discrimination.

For those seeking to embody radical inclusiveness, these statistics may be encouraging since a sizable body of Christians support civil unions and to a lesser degree same-sex marriage.


To read the Pew Forum report, “Majority Continues to Support Civil Unions: Most Still Oppose Same-Sex Marriage” click here.

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