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What’s Behind Senate Republicans’ Hesitancy Toward Same-Sex Marriage?

It’s hard to think of an issue on which public opinion in the United States has changed as completely and rapidly as it has on same-sex marriage. 

When Gallup began tracking the issue in 1996, support was at about 27 percent, with 68 percent opposed. As of May, however, 71 percent supported same-sex marriage with just 28 percent opposed (1 percent had no opinion).

It is, in other words, a complete reversal in public opinion in just one generation. Meanwhile, opinion on abortion, another right that challenges how people view sex, religion, gender and gender roles, has hardly budged. Or at least this was true before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the recent Dobbs v. Jackson decision. 

“The rapid embrace of these rights really is fairly unprecedented,” said Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. But while almost every group of Americans — across ages, race and ethnicity and party identification — now supports the right of same-sex couples to marry, there’s one group that doesn’t: white evangelicals, especially those who go to church every week. 

Support for same-sex marriage has grown over the years among white evangelicals, but a majority remains opposed. More recent trends suggest that support among this group has stalled — and may even be reversing — which is significant at a time when Congress is considering whether to codify same-sex marriage into law.

A federal same-sex marriage bill passed the House last month and is supported by all Democrats in Congress. Forty-seven Republicans voted for the bill in the House, and so far five Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — have said they support it; eight GOP senators are firm noes; and the remaining 37 haven’t said one way or another. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he wants to bring the bill to the floor, but last week, Collins told reporters that Schumer and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s surprise deal to include climate-change legislation in the Democrats’ reconciliation bill might now doom bipartisan efforts around same-sex marriage.

But there’s a far simpler reason Republicans might ultimately decide not to take up the bill: It goes against what many white evangelicals want, and white evangelicals remain an important and influential part of the Republican Party.

Consider that evangelical institutions are already urging Republicans not to vote in favor of the bill. On July 26, 83 religious and right-wing groups sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying the act “is an attack on millions of Americans, particularly people of faith, who believe marriage is between one man and one woman and that legitimate distinctions exist between men and women concerning family formation that should be recognized in the law.”

This argument, that recognizing the rights of others is an infringement on one’s own religious liberty, is a familiar one, especially in the years since the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the country in 2015. Andrew Lewis, a professor in political science at the University of Cincinnati, said that after the verdict in Obergefell v. Hodges, opponents of same-sex marriage lost the argument over whether same-sex marriage should be legal and shifted the discussion. “It's less about the substance of marriage equality and more about what they see as the harm to dissenting opinions,” Lewis said.

The vast majority of white evangelicals, 60 percent, think that someone should be able to refuse service to a same-sex couple if doing otherwise goes against that person’s religion, according to PRRI’s latest annual American Values Atlas, from 2021, which surveys more than 20,000 total respondents. And that share is a bit higher, 68 percent, for white evangelicals who attend church regularly. Most Americans don’t agree — 66 percent in that PRRI survey said someone shouldn’t be able to refuse service on religious grounds. But that is lower than the 79 percent who say they favor laws preventing discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, suggesting some tension between support for anti-discrimination laws and arguments in favor of religious liberty.

It’s why evangelicals’ criticisms of same-sex marriage are now often framed as an infringement on their religious freedoms. It’s a more palatable argument, Lewis told me, than saying marriage should be restricted to a man and a woman.   

In fact, issues of religious liberty fuel some businesses’ decisions to refuse service to same-sex couples and have led to numerous court cases challenging anti-discrimination laws, including one that the Supreme Court plans to take up next term. Newer efforts to limit the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, like Florida’s parental rights’ law that critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, also fall under this broader religious-liberty umbrella — even if the coalition pushing them is broader than just evangelicals. 

Florida’s law prohibits sexual orientation and gender identity education from being taught in kindergarten through third grade in public schools, based on the idea that such education is a parent’s job, and gives parents the right to sue districts they believe are violating the law. At least 13 other states are considering similar laws. Laws targeting transgender people are also taking hold in many of the same states, which are largely those with the greatest shares of people opposed to same-sex marriage.

These laws mobilize white evangelical Christians and help explain the hesitancy of some Republican senators to get on board. “They are the most important part of the Republican Party,” Lewis said. “They bring in new candidates, they turn people out to vote, their issues are at the center of the Republican nomination fights.”

In the PRRI atlas, only 35 percent of white evangelical Protestants now support the right of same-sex couples to marry. That’s a dip, too, from the previous year’s survey, taken in 2020, when 43 percent said they supported same-sex marriage. “My hunch is that this is in response to this sort of heightened political atmosphere of having in the news issues about LGBT rights,” Deckman, of PRRI, said. 

Despite that, the vast majority of Americans still support same-sex marriage, and one reason for that support cited by nearly everyone I spoke to is that LGBTQ+ Americans had already been fighting against discrimination in the decades leading up to the fight over same-sex marriage. As states began allowing same-sex couples to wed, beginning with Massachusetts in 2003 and ending with the Obergefell decision, couples simply became more visible, settling into marriages, buying homes and having children in communities across the country.

“Our opponents said, if we have same-sex marriage, all these parades of horribles will happen,” said David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy and lobbying organization. “And those parades of horribles never came to pass.”

Now, though, laws banning books from school libraries and banning LGBTQ+ education could reduce the kind of visibility and normalization that led to a rise in support for same-sex marriage in the first place. Jennifer Pizer, the acting chief legal officer for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a group that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, told me that because many of these laws aim to censor LGTBQ+ people, conversations that allowed LGTBQ+ people to show they’re not a threat are now more easily shut down. “The efforts to smear us are wrongheaded and really hurtful and should have no place in our society,” said Pizer.

Support for same-sex marriage seemed a settled, popular shift in American society, too, until Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion in the Dobbs case that the court “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” This sounded a warning to the roughly 1 million couples in same-sex marriages in the country, as overturning a popular precedent no longer seems impossible given the court just did that when it overturned Roe.

It’s not clear where this fight will go next, but Stacy told me that the Human Rights Campaign thinks this might lead some state legislatures to try to challenge the decision. “Maybe indirectly, maybe more around religious exemptions, maybe allowing clerks to deny licenses,” he said. After all, groups that opposed abortion rights spent years changing state laws to challenge Roe v. Wade, chipping away at it so that even before it was overturned, abortion wasn’t always an easy right to access. Same-sex marriage opponents could follow the same playbook.

Monica Potts is a senior politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.


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