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5 years ago, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Here’s where faith groups now stand on LGBTQ rights

People of faith, like Americans in general, have grown more supportive of same-sex marriage in recent years.

A crowd celebrates outside of the Supreme Court in Washington after the court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the U.S on June 26, 2015.
Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The Supreme Court’s ruling five years ago in favor of same-sex marriage sent shock waves through religious communities. Faith leaders who opposed the decision anticipated societal decay, lawsuits against churches and a growing inability to live according to their beliefs.

Five years on, many of their fears haven’t been realized. Houses of worship are still allowed to refuse to host same-sex weddings and pastors retain the right to condemn the push to expand LGBTQ rights in the public square.

However, pastors were right to predict a surge in lawsuits. Friction between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom protections has certainly increased since 2015 and the question of how to balance the two has been addressed multiple times in Congress and before the Supreme Court.

The latest research on religion and LGBTQ rights shows that, in the aftermath of same-sex marriage legalization, many people of faith have grown more interested in finding a way to protect both gay couples and religious communities. And that’s not the only way that religious views on related issues have evolved.

Like Americans in general, people of faith have grown more supportive of same-sex marriage since 2015. It’s now more common for religious leaders to urge their congregations to treat members of the LGBTQ community with respect.

Additionally, surveys taken over a longer time period show that people of faith are more likely today than in the past to believe their church thinks homosexual activity is OK.

“The perceived acceptability of ‘homosexual behaviors’ has changed radically,” according to new research from Paul A. Djupe, a political scientist based at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

In 2007, 63% of evangelical Christians assumed that their house of worship forbid homosexual behaviors. Today, just 34% of evangelicals believe that’s the case.

Djupe observed similar shifts among Catholics, Black Protestants and other people of faith. That’s surprising since there have been few notable church policy changes related to LGBTQ rights in recent years, he told the Deseret News in an interview this week.

“There’s been tinkering around the edges” of denominational rules, but no major shifts in teachings on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, he said.

The biggest developments involved condemnations of homosexual behavior, Djupe said. For example, the United Methodist Church voted last year to reaffirm its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination.

Rather than stemming from formal policy shifts, people’s assumption that their church has become more accepting of homosexual activity is likely related to faith leaders’ growing hesitancy to discuss the topic, Djupe said.

“Because (gay marriage) has become such a hot-button topic and public opinion about it as changed so much, conflict-averse clergy are probably leaving some of their opinions about it unspoken,” he said.

Djupe offers some data to back up this claim in a piece that will be published as part of a forthcoming book from the University of Michigan. He found that the share of evangelicals who said they hear about same-sex marriage from clergy members fell 14 percentage points from 2016 to 2018 — from 38% to 24%.

For many worshippers, it’s possible that they won’t know their church’s stance on LGBTQ rights until they intentionally seek it out, Djupe added.

“Hints might be there ... but it’s probably not at the forefront” of weekly worship services, Djupe said.

However, the lack of conversation about same-sex marriage in religious spaces doesn’t make ongoing efforts to balance LGBTQ rights laws with religious freedom protections any easier.

Many people of faith remain staunchly opposed to expanding legal protections for members of the LGBTQ community. And many gay rights activists remain convinced that religious leaders don’t have their best interests at heart.

“Often, the people pitted against each other have never been in the same room,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, an expert on religious freedom law, to the Deseret News last year.

Communication failures have derailed efforts to resolve many of the legal conflicts that sprang up in the wake of same-sex marriage legalization.

For example, it’s still unclear whether small business owners who oppose gay marriage for religious reasons should be required to serve LGBTQ customers, despite the fact that the Supreme Court heard a case on the issue in 2017.

In that case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the justices based their decision on state officials’ perceived mistreatment of a Christian baker, rather than the actions of the baker himself. The 7-2 ruling did not address whether people of faith who own wedding-related businesses have a right to turn same-sex couples away.

“This decision should provide cold comfort for anyone arguing for a broader exemption” from LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws, said James Esseks, who directs the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project, at the time.

Over the past few years, some people of faith have become more likely to side with religious business owners in service disputes, according to research conducted by PRRI, a Washington, D.C.-based survey firm.

In 2016, 62% of white mainline Protestants, 61% of white Catholics, 52% of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and 72% of Jews opposed allowing business owners to refuse service to gay couples. By 2019, those figures had dropped to 54%, 56%, 43% and 65%, respectively.

Over the same time period, religious support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections has been consistent.

In 2019, majorities of all major faith groups, including 61% of white evangelical Protestants, 74% of white mainline Protestants, 72% of Black Protestants, 74% of white Catholics and 70% of Latter-day Saints, favored laws protecting members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination in housing, hiring and places of public accommodation, PRRI reported.

Some religious leaders and LGBTQ rights advocates look at these two sets of survey results and see an opportunity. During the past five years, a diverse coalition of organizations have been working together to craft legislation that would expand protections for people of faith who oppose same-sex marriage and members of the gay community at the same time.

“We want to do the right thing by gay rights, but we think you have to do the right thing by religious freedom, too,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, the founder and senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, to the Deseret News in December 2019 after the fruit of the coalition’s labor, the Fairness for All Act, was introduced in Congress.

The Supreme Court seems to share this approach to gay and religious rights. In the court’s most recent ruling in favor of gay rights, released earlier this month, the justices emphasized their ongoing support for people of faith.

“We are ... deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion, which said that the ban on sex discrimination in the workplace covers sexual orientation and gender identity based discrimination.

Now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy said something similar when explaining the court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in 2015. He argued that support for LGBTQ rights need not be seen as an attack on religious freedom.

“Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here,” Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.