Washington — The Supreme Court will hear arguments next week in a landmark case on gay marriage, but most Americans already have made up their minds: There's no turning back.
In a nationwide USA Today/Suffolk University Poll, those surveyed say by 51 percent-35 percent that it's no longer practical for the Supreme Court to ban same-sex marriages because so many states have legalized them.
One reason for a transformation in public views on the issue: Close to half say they have a gay or lesbian family member or close friend who is married to someone of the same sex.
Kraig Ziegler, 58, of Flagstaff, Ariz., acknowledged being a bit uncomfortable when he attended a wedding reception for two men, friends of his wife, who had married. "I still believe what the Bible says, 'one man, one woman,' " the mechanic, who was among those polled, said in a follow-up interview.
On the other hand, he said, "I got to know the guys, and they're all right. They don't make passes or anything at me."
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Now he calls himself undecided on the issue.
In the survey, a majority, 51 percent to 35 percent, favor allowing gay men and lesbians to marry, and those who support the idea feel more strongly about it than those who oppose it: 28 percent "strongly favor" same-sex marriage, 18 percent "strongly oppose" it. Fourteen percent are undecided.
"Everybody has a right to get married and be unhappy," joked Joann Fleming, 65, of Los Angeles. She's divorced.
The poll of 1,000 people, taken by landline and cellphone April 8-13, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
There have been tidal changes in public opinion toward same-sex marriage -- more than a third say they have changed their views on gays and lesbians during their lifetimes -- but there also is a huge generation gap. Six in 10 of those 18 to 34 support the idea, compared with fewer than four in 10 of those 65 and older.
And there continue to be conflicted views and some bitter divisions.
While nearly six in 10 Americans oppose a law that would allow people to refuse to provide business services to a same-sex wedding, those on both sides of that debate are concerned about the potential consequences of balancing respect for religious freedom with support for civil rights.
On April 28, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear two and a half hours of oral arguments on cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee that turn on whether gay and lesbian partners have a constitutional right to marry or whether states have the right to ban the practice. A ruling is expected before the high court's term ends in late June.
Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriages, most of them as the result of a court decision.
Clash of rights
As more states allow same-sex marriage, disputes have grown over whether individuals and businesses should have the right to refuse to provide services for a gay wedding if they have religious objections.
By almost 2 to 1, 58 percent to 31 percent, those surveyed say they shouldn't. Indeed, more than a third of those who oppose gay marriage also oppose a law that would allow people to cite religious reasons for refusing, say, to provide flowers or catering for a same-sex couple.
A political firestorm erupted last month when Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which said the government could not "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow their religious beliefs. Amid protests the law would open the door to discrimination against gays, the state hurriedly enacted a follow-up provision that banned use of the law to defend discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"It's nobody's right to say, 'This is right or this is wrong' or exclude a certain group of people," said Ashley Williams, 25, an elementary school teacher from Durham, N.C. "Just because they're gay doesn't mean they're any less human."
If a local business refused to provide services to a same-sex wedding -- say, the rental of a reception hall -- she says she'd be inclined to refuse to patronize the business herself.
But others disagree. "It's in the eyes of God," said Robert Robilliad, 61, a postal worker from Sagamore, Mass., who opposes gay marriage on religious grounds.
"A business, they should be allowed to do whatever they want to do without being tormented by higher-ups," said Virginia Roberts, 85, of Holland, Ohio, who has retired from her job as the secretary at a spark-plug company. She doesn't think gay marriages should be permitted, but she worries that the die on that already has been cast.
"All somebody has to do is start it, anything," she said. "Once it's done, from then on, it trickles right down just like a leaf in a pond -- right down and everybody does it."
Most Americans don't see the issue as being black-and-white:
Nearly two-thirds, 63 percent, are concerned that a law requiring businesses to provide services to same-sex weddings would force those involved to go against their religious beliefs or pay a penalty. Even among those who support gay marriage, 17 percent also support a law giving people the right to refuse.
About the same number, 64 percent, are concerned that a law allowing people to refuse such services on religious grounds would discriminate against gay men and lesbians. Even among those who oppose gay marriage, 37 percent also oppose a law giving people the right to refuse.
In all, four in 10 are worried about the consequences of choosing either course.
On two questions, there is a broad consensus.
Americans believe discrimination against gay men and lesbians continues to be widespread: 28 percent say there is "a great deal" of discrimination; another 44 percent say there is "some." Fifteen percent say there is "only a little," and 9 percent see none at all.
And an overwhelming 76 percent oppose revoking a church's tax-exempt status if it doesn't recognize same-sex marriages. Even among those who favor gay marriage, only one in five would support such a move.
But some bitter divisions remain as those on opposite sides of the issue view one another. In the poll, 35 percent of those opposed to same-sex marriage say they wouldn't respect someone who supported it. And 25 percent of those who favor same-sex marriage say they wouldn't respect someone who opposed it.
The issue is sure to flare during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Democrat Hillary Clinton last week said for the first time that she hopes the Supreme Court rules in favor of a constitutional right to marry, a stance at odds with the Republican field.
GOP hopeful Rick Santorum said he would refuse even to attend the gay wedding of a family member or close friend. But Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also a prospective 2016 Republican contender, told reporters in New Hampshire Saturday that he already had attended a reception for the same-sex wedding of a family member. "That's certainly a personal issue," he said.
[Susan Page writes for USA Today.]
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