An Overview of the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ignited a nationwide debate in late 2003 when it ruled that the state must allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. Almost overnight, same-sex marriage became a major national issue, pitting religious and social conservatives against gay-rights advocates and their allies. Over the next year, the ensuing battle over gay marriage could be heard in the halls of the U.S. Congress, in dozens of state legislatures and in the rhetoric of election campaigns at the national and state level.

The debate over same-sex marriage shows no signs of abating. In California, for instance, a high-profile case challenging the constitutionality of a state law banning same-sex marriage was argued before the state's highest court in early March 2008, with a decision expected by May. (See From Griswold to Goodridge: The Constitutional Dimensions of the Same-Sex Marriage Debate.) A similar suit is on the verge of being decided by Connecticut's Supreme Court. In addition, Florida will hold a referendum during the November 2008 election on a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit gay marriage. Other states, such as Arizona and Indiana, are considering putting similar referenda on the November ballot.

Supporters of same-sex marriage contend that gay and lesbian couples should be treated no differently than their heterosexual counterparts and that they should be able to marry like anyone else. Beyond wanting to uphold the principle of nondiscrimination and equal treatment, supporters say that there are very practical reasons behind the fight for marriage equity. They point out, for instance, that homosexual couples who have been together for years often find themselves without the basic rights and privileges that are currently enjoyed by heterosexual couples who legally marry - from the sharing of health and pension benefits to hospital visitation rights.

Social conservatives and others who oppose same-sex unions assert that marriage between a man and a woman is the bedrock of a healthy society because it leads to stable families and, ultimately, to children who grow up to be productive adults. Allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed, they argue, will radically redefine marriage and further weaken it at a time when the institution is already in deep trouble due to high divorce rates and the significant number of out-of-wedlock births. Moreover, they predict, giving gay couples the right to marry will ultimately lead to granting people in polygamous and other nontraditional relationships the right to marry as well.

The American religious community is deeply divided over the issue of same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups have played a leading role in public opposition to gay marriage, while mainline Protestant churches and other religious groups wrestle with whether to ordain gay clergy and perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Indeed, the ordination and marriage of gay persons has been a growing wedge between the socially liberal and conservative wings of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, leading some conservative congregations and even whole dioceses to break away from their national churches. (See Religious Groups' Official Positions on Gay Marriage.)

Polls show that frequency of worship service attendance is a factor in the opposition to gay marriage. According to an August 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 55% of Americans oppose gay marriage, with 36% favoring it. But those with a high frequency of church attendance oppose it by a substantially wider margin (73% in opposition vs. 21% in favor). Opposition among white evangelicals, regardless of frequency of church attendance, is even higher - at 81%. A majority of black Protestants (64%) and Latino Catholics (52%)[*] also oppose gay marriage, as do pluralities of white, non-Hispanic Catholics (49%) and white mainline Protestants (47%). Only among Americans without a religious affiliation does a majority (60%) express support.

However, a 2006 Pew survey found that sizable majorities of white mainline Protestants (66%), Catholics (63%) and those without a religious affiliation (78%) favor allowing homosexual couples to enter into civil unions that grant most of the legal rights of marriage without the title. The general public also supports civil unions (54% in favor vs. 42% in opposition). As with gay marriage, white evangelicals (66%), black Protestants (62%) and frequent church attenders (60%) stand out for their opposition to civil unions. (See A Stable Majority: Most Americans Still Oppose Same-Sex Marriage.)

The same-sex marriage debate is not solely an American phenomenon. Many countries, especially in Europe, have grappled with the issue as well. And since 2001, four nations - the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and South Africa - have legalized gay marriage. In addition, the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec in Canada now allow same-sex couples to legally marry. (See Same-Sex Marriage: Redefining Marriage Around the World.)

Read An Overview of the Same-Sex Marriage Debate on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.

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