SANTA ANA, Calif. — When it comes to polls about same-sex marriage, it's all about how you ask the question. A new national poll by Lawrence Research found that 64 percent of Americans feel that marriage should only be between one man and one woman. Thirty-three percent feel marriage should be redefined to include any two people.
The poll results may seem to contradict a Gallup poll in May that found 53 percent of Americans thought "marriage between same-sex couples should … be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriage."
But the results, like the issue itself, are open to debate.
Gary Lawrence is the president of Lawrence Research in Santa Ana, Calif., and is very familiar with both the topic and the polling. His company conducted polls in 2008 for the "Yes on 8" campaign, which successfully pushed for the passage of Proposition 8 in California to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Now, as several states such as North Carolina and Minnesota are gearing up to vote on same-sex marriage and as the Defense of Marriage Act is poised to be challenged both in the Supreme Court and in Congress, the question of where people stand on the issue of same-sex marriage rights is being explored by more politicians, prelates, pundits and pollsters.
And understanding the poll results becomes more important.
Lawrence conducted a national poll about religion and politics to 1,000 randomly chosen adults in all 50 states in July. He is very conscious of how his questions are different than those of many national polls.
The Rev. Dr. Cindi Love thinks this is the problem with Lawrence's poll. Love is the executive director for Soulforce, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the rights of gays and lesbians — particularly among religious people. "Having been involved in a lot of polling, I can create questions that create the type of responses that I want. And so I think this survey comes across as being very affirming of a family structure based on a heteronormative relationship between a man and a woman."
Lawrence, however, thinks the wording problems are in the other polls.
For example, he said the Gallup question assumes same-sex relationships are already marriages. He said it was like asking, "These relationships are already valid marriages. Do you think the law should validate them?"
But the biggest problem Lawrence has with most polls on the subject is they focus solely on same-sex marriage without asking the "broader question" of what the definition of a marriage should be. "When you are focusing only on 'yes' and 'no' on gay marriage, you get a different answer than when you say, 'Here are the two types of marriage, which one do you support?'"
Maggie Gallagher, the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and the former president of the National Organization for Marriage, thinks Lawrence's poll results match the results at the ballot box when the question is put to voters. "People are becoming increasingly sensitive to not wanting to be perceived as hostile to gay people and that is affecting the polling," Gallagher said. She said this change has a lot to do with what she perceives as an enormous change in gay marriage advocates' rhetoric following the passage of Proposition 8. "In the past they acknowledged that not everyone who opposes gay marriage is a bigot or a hater or a discriminator. But the main message in the press now is that if you simply don't believe in gay marriage, that in itself, is enough to demonstrate that you have bigotry or animus," Gallagher said. "And people are becoming reluctant to tell pollsters what they really believe unless they have a signal from the pollster that it is safe to do so."
One thing in Lawrence's poll that may have made religious people feel "safe" was he was connecting the issue to religious questions.
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