SALT LAKE CITY — While finding that Americans narrowly favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, a new national poll also shows most believe wedding-related businesses should be allowed to deny service to same-sex couples for religious reasons.
Roughly half the country also thinks local officials and judges with religious objections ought to be exempt from any requirement that they issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, according to the Associated Press-Gfk poll.
The poll was released a week after LDS Church leaders expressed support for nondiscrimination laws that also balance safeguards for religious freedoms.
In statement released Thursday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said, "We don't generally comment on poll results. The church believes in a 'fairness for all' approach, which strives to balance reasonable nondiscrimination safeguards while protecting key religious rights."
The poll found that 44 percent of Americans favor and 39 percent oppose legal same-sex marriage in their own states, while 15 percent expressed no opinion. But the country is evenly divided, 48 percent to 48 percent, on which way the Supreme Court should rule when it decides the issue for the entire nation this spring.
Gay marriage is legal in 36 states because of a flurry of recent federal court decisions.
Bill Duncan, director for the Sutherland Institute's Center for Family and Society, expressed surprise at the number of undecided respondents in the poll.
"That probably tells us it's still a pretty thorny issue and a lot of it will depend on what the Supreme Court does and how they will justify their decision," Duncan said.
The poll also highlighted the question held by those, likely including many Utahns, who may be "watching warily," accepting that same-sex couples can now marry but worrying what legal changes may mean for those who hold religious objections, Duncan said.
Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah law professor and board chairman of Equality Utah, emphasized the strong religious protections already afforded by Utah law, all while many Utahns have voiced support for protecting their gay and lesbian neighbors from housing and employment discrimination.
"Utah has some of the country's strongest protections for religious freedom on the books already, and I think once people take a look at those protections and see them, they will realize it's not like religious freedom is unprotected in our state," Rosky said.
On the other hand, so far, Utah has no statewide legal protections for gay and lesbian residents, he said.
"There are literally none. The word 'homosexuality' only appears once in the Utah code, and it's not in a protective manner," Rosky said.
In Utah County, clerk Bryan Thompson says he has strong personal opinions on same-sex marriage, but he doesn't think those should influence how he performs his duties.
Thompson's office initially waited to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in December 2013 after a federal judge in Utah struck down the state's ban on gay marriage. The county clerk said he had wanted more legal guidance from the state.
"I have a responsibility as a civil servant to follow the dictates of the law, regardless of my personal feelings or preferences," Thompson said.
David Kenney, a self-employed Catholic from Novi, Michigan, said he's fine with same-sex marriage being legal. He's among the 57 percent of Americans who said wedding-related businesses — such as florists — should be allowed to refuse service if they have an objection rooted in their religion.
"Why make an issue out of one florist when there are probably thousands of florists?" asked Kenney, 59. "The gay community wants people to understand their position, but at the same time, they don't want to understand other people's religious convictions. It's a two-way street."
Kenney isn't alone. About a quarter of those who favor legal same-sex marriage also favor religious exemptions for those who issue marriage licenses, the poll finds, and a third say wedding-related businesses should be allowed to refuse service.
Geri Rice, who lives near San Francisco and works in law firm management, strongly favors gay marriage. She's torn about whether a public official with religious objections should be exempt from issuing a license but says she believes that business owners should be allowed to tell somebody no thanks.
"I don't like it," Rice said, "but I think they have the right."
Whether a business can refuse service to someone is a matter of federal, state and local law. National gay-rights groups called the idea of trying to carve out religious exemptions in anti-discrimination statutes deeply flawed.
James Esseks, who directs the LGBT project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom "does not give any of us the right to harm others, and that's what it sounds like the proposal from the Mormon Church would do."
Note: The Deseret News contributed to this report.