Poll: Public now evenly split at 48 percent on legalizing gay marriage -- in Utah

I thought gay-marriage polls had lost their capacity to surprise but I was wrong. Utah is so overwhelmingly Mormon, and Mormons are so heavily opposed to legalizing SSM, that a poll of the state would necessarily produce some lopsided 30/70 result against — I thought. Not so: A third of Mormons there are now pro-legalization and the non-Mormon population is large enough (and pro-SSM enough) that, between them, they’ve made this a toss-up even in one of America’s reddest states.

For what it’s worth, there may be a silver lining for opponents here.

Residents are now evenly split on whether same-sex couples in Utah should be allowed to get state-issued marriage licences — 48 percent for and 48 percent against — and nearly three-fourths (72 percent) said same-sex couples should be allowed to form civil unions or domestic partnerships in lieu of marriage…

The results reflect a remarkable turn since 66 percent of Utahns who participated in the 2004 general election approved Amendment 3, which limited civil marriage to a man and a woman and barred any state recognition of other relationships such as civil unions or domestic partnerships…

Support for same-sex marriage was strongest among non-Mormons, people between ages 18 and 34 and those who described themselves as Democrats. Slightly more than a third of respondents (36 percent) said their views on same-sex marriage have shifted over time, something that was equally true of Mormons and non-Mormons. Overwhelmingly, people in both of those demographic categories said their views had become more accepting.

Mormons oppose legalizing gay marriage 32/64 while non-Mormons support it 76/21. On the lesser question of civil unions, though, they’re in sync: 65 percent of Mormons say yes versus 84 percent of non-Mormons. The latter result is, I assume, an olive branch by LDS members to gay couples to show that they don’t oppose all legal recognition of gay relationships, just the traditional concept of “marriage.” Problem is, it’s arguably harder to defend marriage laws from an equal protection challenge in court once you’ve extended substantive marriage rights to gays, even if your motive in extending those rights was well intentioned. If gay relationships are entitled to virtually every legal benefit of marriage except the label itself, a court’s going to find more often than not that withholding the label amounts to discrimination for its own sake, without a good/rational reason. The olive branch, designed to keep “marriage” as a separate sphere for straights only, actually weakens the case for it.

These numbers are interesting too:


Protecting religious conscience via constitutional amendment is probably the next phase of the great gay-marriage debate — maybe even at the federal level, as there are some Democrats at the moment who are willing, if only in the name of quieting critics of legalizing gay marriage, to rhetorically endorse conscience protections. That’d be fertile ground for social cons next year if the GOP takes back the Senate. The public supports freedom of conscience in this area overwhelmingly; a two-thirds majority of both chambers in Congress isn’t out of the question, especially since red-state Democrats don’t like being seen as anti-religion. Better move fast, though, before these numbers too slowly start to erode in a country that’s becoming marginally less religious.

The other poll result above, about challenging the ruling of the federal judge on gay marriage in Utah, is where the silver lining I mentioned comes in. Even in a state that’s trending towards support for legalizing SSM, people don’t like having the rules made by judges. The Supreme Court is sensitive to that, too. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has grumbled that pro-choicers might have been better off without Roe v. Wade, since that would have left legalization to the states and that would have built a democratic legitimacy for the practice that Roe, to some extent, short-circuited. The Court’s ruling on Prop 8 last year, in which it declined the opportunity to strike down traditional marriage laws across the country, may be an example of the same logic at work. There’s almost no question that SCOTUS will, eventually, legalize gay marriage; there is a question of whether they might hold off for several years if they see the public even in conservative redoubts like Utah shifting their way. Why open itself up to “tyranny of the judiciary” charges if it can sit back and let changing electoral demographics do the job? As such, polls like this might buy more time for other conservative states to keep their marriage laws, even though they almost certainly won’t last forever.