National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

U.S. Views on Gay Issues Shift as Churches Resist

Religion News Service

While Americans seem to be growing more tolerant of gay marriage -- at least according to a study released last Friday (July 25) by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life -- their churches, on the other hand, have stuck to a hard line: No means no.

The Vatican said Thursday (July 31) there are “absolutely no grounds” to support gay marriage, and a potential schism is brewing within the Episcopal Church as conservatives vow to resist any effort to allow the blessing of same-sex unions at the church’s General Convention in Minneapolis this week.

Polls show that rank-and-file Protestants and Catholics, however, agree less and less with the messages against gay marriage that are being sent from the religious hierarchies.

Fewer than half of mainline Protestants and Catholics oppose same-sex marriage, a downward shift of about 20 percentage points each from seven years ago, the report said. Fifty-three percent of the general population opposes gay marriage.

Whether the trend will stick may depend on the fallout from last month’s Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law. In Canada, gay marriage seems all but inevitable after the government agreed with a court decision that said marriage for heterosexuals only is discriminatory. In Massachusetts, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court is on the verge of delivering the same verdict.

Conservatives are already predicting a backlash.

“Americans in general are going to say, ‘Wait a minute. You’ve crossed a line. You’re pushing too far,’” said Michael Craven, vice president for religious and cultural affairs at the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families.

Even gay activists are concerned. “No doubt Congress would feel extraordinary pressure to again ‘defend marriage,’” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “And they have lots of options for inflicting harm: anything from denying federal funds to any state that recognizes equal rights for marriage ... to approving a constitutional amendment” that defines marriage as strictly a union between a man and a woman.

Backlash or not, religious experts said reasons abound for why people seem to be distancing themselves from the views of their religious institutions on homosexuality.

“The fact is that homosexuality is becoming more mainstream in America, and so more and more people view it as an acceptable lifestyle, and hence have little problem with gay marriage,” said Jeffrey Mann, an assistant professor of religion at Susquehanna University.

Laura Leming, a Marianist Catholic sister who teaches sociology at the University of Dayton, agreed.

“Americans, whether religious or not, have a wider range of experiences with openly gay and lesbian couples,” she said. “That very familiarity makes it more likely that they will have positive experiences of such unions, and be less likely to agree with a blanket pronouncement that such unions are intrinsically bad.”

But there’s much more going on, she said.

Americans generally value independent thinking, so “while church attenders may be familiar with church teaching, they may be somewhat less likely to adhere to it,” she said.

Church attendance at services is often a key indicator. People who regularly attend religious services are more likely to stick with religious teachings, she said. But regular attendees are somewhat few and far between these days -- only about 25 percent of the population -- according to Leming.

“So, even if people identify with a religion they may have fairly loose ties to it,” she said.

There are still more factors involved, according to Amy-Jill Levine, director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School.

For one, congregations differ.

“To suggest that there’s only one factor that determines congregational acceptance of gay couples would be inappropriate,” she said. “There’s often going to be slippage between what the denomination actually teaches and what congregations actually do.”

Some congregations look to state laws for guidance, while others go directly to their religious leaders for authority. Views about the Bible also factor in: Those that have a strong view of the authority of the Bible could hold less tolerant views of homosexuals, she said. Some congregations might also be more inclined to embrace gay individuals who are an entrenched part of the religious community.

If a person has grown up in a community -- gone to Sunday school, youth group, adult Bible study -- it’s going to have an effect on the way he or she is treated by the congregation, Levine said.

“It is sometimes easier for congregations to accept a gay member if that member has been a longtime participant in that congregation and if that member has supportive family, also, within the congregation,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

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