A solid majority of Americans now support equal treatment for same-sex couples despite religious objections, according to the State of the First Amendment survey released this week by the First Amendment Center.
Sixty-one percent of respondents agree that the government should require religiously affiliated groups that receive government funding to provide health care benefits to same-sex partners of employees — even when the religious group opposes same-sex marriage.
And 54 percent of the public agree that a business providing wedding services to the public should be required to serve same-sex couples, even if the business owner objects to gay marriage on religious grounds.
These findings are consistent with the dramatic rise in public support for gay marriage — 59 in a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey (75 percent among those under 30).
What's somewhat surprising, however, is the strength of that support in the face of religious objections. When the first legal same-sex marriage was performed in Massachusetts 10 years ago, conservative religious groups were able to mobilize voters to approve laws and constitutional amendments in many states — including deep blue California — banning gay marriage.
Now the tide has turned — not only in the courts (bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and Utah were struck down just this week), but also in the court of public opinion.
While gay marriage remains unpopular in some red states, many conservative politicians and religious leaders have toned down the rhetoric as the public continues to migrate toward support for marriage equality.
Early in the debate, religious objectors to same-sex marriage appeared to enjoy broad public support for their efforts to secure religious exceptions to laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. That may no longer be the case.
A defining moment came earlier this year in Arizona when the conservative governor vetoed a bill that would have made it possible for religious business owners to seek an exemption from providing wedding services to same-sex couples.
Lost in the Arizona debate were the nuances of the proposed law: It would only have allowed businesses to make a claim for religious accommodation — but with no guarantee of the outcome.
In the mind of the public, however, the Arizona legislature was attempting to legalize discrimination against gay couples in the name of religious freedom. Rather than be labeled the “no gays allowed” state, the Chamber of Commerce and many Republican leaders joined LGBT rights groups in the successful campaign to persuade the governor to veto the bill.
As the Arizona outcome suggests, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is fast becoming politically and socially unacceptable. For a growing number of Americans, the movement for marriage equality is all about equal treatment under the law.
Of course, religious groups have a constitutional right to oppose gay marriage and to refuse to perform same-sex weddings. And as long as we uphold the First Amendment, that will continue to be the case.
But when religiously affiliated groups receive tax dollars to deliver social services or when wedding providers open their doors to serve the public, most Americans now believe gay couples should be treated just like everyone else.
In the battle over equal treatment for same-sex couples, it's all over but the shouting.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: religiousfreedomcenter.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org