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Poll: Majority of Utahns against same-sex marriage and say states have the right to decide

SHARE Poll: Majority of Utahns against same-sex marriage and say states have the right to decide
Plaintiffs, activists and equality supporters rally at the Utah State Capitol to show support for Judge Robert Shelby's Dec. 20th ruling on Amendment 3  in Salt Lake City Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.

Plaintiffs, activists and equality supporters rally at the Utah State Capitol to show support for Judge Robert Shelby’s Dec. 20th ruling on Amendment 3 in Salt Lake City Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of Utahns do not support same-sex marriage, believe the decision on marriage should rest with individual states, and say if gay marriage were legal, Utah should pass laws to protect places of worship from having to perform weddings for gay and lesbian couples.

But a new Deseret News/KSL poll also shows that attitudes have changed in the state during the past 10 years, fueled by younger people and an influx of new residents creating an increasingly diverse population, which follows national trends that show generational disparity in attitudes for or against gay marriage.

The poll found 57 percent of residents oppose same-sex marriage, while 36 percent support it and 6 percent are undecided, according to the survey conducted by longtime pollster Dan Jones & Associates/Cicero Group on Jan. 14-16. It has a plus or minus 3.6 percent margin of error.

"I believe that they felt very strongly about their opinions on this issue," Jones said of the 746 Utahns who were queried by telephone and cell phone and online. "Most issues that involve religion and religious ideology bring out the strong emotions in respondents."

Religious protection

If same-sex marriage were legal in Utah, 72 percent said laws should be passed to protect churches, synagogues and other places of worship from having to perform same-sex marriages. Twenty-two percent said no such laws are needed.

Jonathan Johnson, executive vice chairman of the online retailer Overstock.com and founder of the First Freedom PAC, said it's shocking to him that some people think churches don't need protection. He started the political action committee to combat what he sees as an assault on the First Amendment and to preserve the role of churches and religious associations in society.

"It makes me feel like if a same-gender couple goes to an orthodox Jewish rabbi and says, 'Marry us in your synagogue,' the 22 percent would say he has to say yes," he said.

"I'm surprised that anyone thinks that the government should force religions to do things," he said. "But because the religious liberties issue today is so tied to the same-sex marriage issue, I can see why it's a sore spot for people."

Interestingly, the same respondents were less inclined to put businesses in the same category as churches.

Only 51 percent would support laws to protect businesses and individuals who object based on their religious beliefs to providing professional services such as catering or photography for same-sex weddings. Forty percent said those kinds of laws aren't needed.

Utah House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he doesn't like the premise of a question that suggests a person of faith or a religion would be allowed to choose who to serve.

"If a photographer wants to turn away business, I just think they're going to be on the wrong side of that. It's not going to be a successful endeavor for them," said Hughes, who manages housing properties for a living. "We don't need a law to tell people how to be good and smart businessmen."

Civil unions

Though Utahns oppose same-sex marriage, the poll shows a majority favor civil unions and are about evenly split on whether Utah should recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

And the results show that women and people under age 35 have more favorable attitudes toward gay marriage than men and older residents, which follows national trends on the acceptance of same-sex marriage.

"This really is a generational shift," said Pam Perlich, a senior research economist at the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. "If this poll had been taken 10 years ago, the results would have been very different. The times they are a changin'."

In 2004, Utah voters approved a state constitutional amendment 66 percent to 34 percent defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The poll suggests it would pass today but not by that wide of a margin.

Perlich, who analyzed the poll results, attributed the shift to the state's changing demographics, noting that millenials will out number baby boomers in the next decade.

As immigrants and people of color and different religions, sexual orientation and gender identity moved to Utah or come out of the shadows, there is a slowly emerging acceptance of diversity, she said. More Utahns now interact with gay, lesbian or transgender people at work or in their own families and that personal relatonship changes their ideas about them, Perlich said.

The poll comes in the midst of a court battle and contentious public debate over same-sex marriage in Utah.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby found Utah's voter-approved definition of marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The state appealed the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which refused to put Shelby's decision on hold.

More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples married during a 17-day period in December and January until the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay pending the appeal.

Disagreeing with Shelby

In the poll, 55 percent disagreed with Shelby's ruling that overturned the state's constitutional amendment defining marriage, while 33 percent agreed. And 56 percent believe individual states have the right to define marriage, while 39 percent say they do not.

"It's evident they don't want government interfering in their own state policies and religious beliefs," Jones said.

One poll participant, Stephen Green, opposes same-sex marriage and said he believes Shelby's ruling was in error.

"It's probably greatly due to my moral convictions and my beliefs, my strong Christian beliefs," he said.

Suzanne Gerken, another survey respondent, supports the court decision.

"I just think everybody has a right to marry who they love, and it's about love and rights," she said.

Asked how they would vote if the amendment defining marriage between a man and woman were on the ballot today, 54 percent of those polled said they would vote for it, 39 percent would vote against it and 7 percent were undecided.

Although the question on the ballot and the poll are the same, making a direct comparison between the results is difficult because the election accounts for voters, while the poll is a sample of all Utahns.

Still, Quin Monson, head of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said support for the amendment is less now than it was 10 years ago.

"That does show some change since 2004," he said.

LDS oppose gay marriage

Active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remain overwhelming opposed to same-sex marriage.

The survey showed that 89 percent of those who identified themselves as active Mormons oppose gay marriage. That number fell to 76 percent when they were combined with people who considered themselves somewhat active or not active Mormons. Seventeen percent of all Mormon respondents support same-sex marriage.

Civil unions are a different matter for Latter-day Saints.

The polls showed 41 percent of active Mormons favor civil unions and, the number rose to 48 percent when both active and less active Mormons were considered.

Gov. Gary Herbert said it doesn't matter what polls say.

"We've had a vote. We've had a constitutional amendment. We've had the people speak," he said.

Herbert said it's a matter of following the law.

"We are obligated to follow law," he said. "I make no moral judgement as governor. I'm not the religious leader of the state. I'm just the governor."

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