Did the New York legislature exceed their mandate by approving gay marriage?  According to a new Quinnipiac poll of registered voters, the answer appears to be a resounding no.  Not only do voters overall approve of the vote, but it leads it in every region of the state:

New York State voters support 54 – 40 percent a law allowing same-sex couples to marry, with voters under 35 supporting the measure 70 – 26 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. Voters 35 to 64 years old also support the measure, while voters over 65 oppose it 57 – 37 percent. Support remained consistent before and after passage of the bill.

Some people assumed that more-conservative voters in upstate New York would oppose the bill, where Republicans normally do better.  While gay marriage doesn’t win a majority as it does in New York City (60/36), it does win a near-majority at 49/42.  It also has majority support in every income level except for opposition among those who make $30K-50K, 45/51.  Both men and women support it by wide and almost identical majorities, 55/39 and 55/40 respectively.

The age demographics tell the main story.  Seniors oppose it 37/57, but every other age demographic supports it by wide majorities, going from 59/36 among 50-64YOs to 70/26 among 18-34YOs.  The definition of marriage demanded by social conservatives from government is too restrictive for the New York populace, and I suspect we will see that more libertarian trend eventually make its way through most other states as well.  That’s why I argue in my column for The Week today that social conservatives should have taken my advice from years ago and fought to get government out of the marriage-definition business altogether:

American marriage didn’t get devalued because New York’s legislature followed that of New Hampshire and Vermont in legalizing same-gender marriage. It got devalued when we began treating marriages as less important and less binding than business partnerships.

The lesson from this isn’t that we need to jettison no-fault divorce. The proper lesson is that government doesn’t handle marriage well in the first place, especially protecting its “sanctity.” What does government do well in addressing relationship issues? Enforcing contracts.

Instead of demanding that states define and enforce marriage in a narrow sense, conservatives should demand that government stay out of defining and performing marriages at all. Couples that want to form partnerships should create a legal relationship based on existing contract law that is neutral to issues of gender and sexual preference. When one partner wants to end a partnership, then the terms of the contract should be enforced by courts. That will not only get rid of government as a spiritual arbiter in marriage, a role for which it has repeatedly proven unsuitable, it would encourage couples wishing to marry to discuss and agree in great detail the terms of their relationship up front.  That kind of preparation — and the knowledge that a court will enforce a partnership agreement — will produce better and longer-lasting partnerships, in part by discouraging impulsive decisions to leap into marriage in the first place.

As I wrote last year, that would actually benefit the religious communities:

Then, if people want to get “married,” they can go to the institutions that actually care about marriage: churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and so on.  Marriage can be a private, faith-based recognition of a sacramental relationship that exists outside of the civil context entirely, and houses of faith can set their own requirements as to what it means and who can participate — just as they do now.  Not only does that protect the sanctity of actual marriage much more than a government, but it also means that government has no way to poke the camel’s nose of intervention into the religious tent, as it were, to force houses of faith to conduct marriages that violate their tenets in the name of fairness.  Divorcing marriage from the state and dissolving the partnership between government and religion benefits the latter more than the former.

In New York and other states, people want government to treat domestic partnerships in a gender-neutral manner.  Social conservatives should fight to get government out of the marriage-definition business in order to keep sacramental definitions where they belong — where they have always belonged.

Update: Two errors should be noted.  First, the headline was incorrect; the poll results showed support for the bill 54/40, not 52/40.  I’ve changed that.  Second, the subheadline at The Week (which I didn’t write) said that conservatives have demanded that “courts” define marriage, when conservatives have fought against court interventions.  The subhead should have read “government,” and they are making that correction now.