SALT LAKE CITY — Support for traditional marriage appears to be staying strong among Utah politicians even as national views on allowing same-sex couples to wed are changing.
Tuesday, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments in two key gay marriage cases, Gov. Gary Herbert and two lawmakers were featured speakers at a "Celebration of Marriage" event at the state Capitol.
"The balance of power in this state is clearly behind traditional marriage," said Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor. "There are a fair number of states that look like Utah, but Utah is probably the strongest proponent."
Burbank said the LDS Church's position on marriage has settled the discussion for many.
"The issue of marriage has been fairly prominently handled by the church," he said. "The LDS Church has come out strong on side of that issue. In a state with a majority of Mormon voters, that makes a big impact."
Michael Purdy, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a statement issued Tuesday:
"We firmly support the divinely appointed definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman because it is the single most important institution for strengthening children, families and society. We hope the court will agree and look forward to the decision on this important matter."
Dave Woodard, a political science professor and pollster at Clemson University in South Carolina, said his state and much of the South are also staunch backers of traditional marriage, just like Utah.
"It's kind of nice to have company," Woodard said. "Nine of the top 10 states when it comes to church attendance are in the South. The other is Utah. It's the churchgoing states that oppose this."
Woodard said the nation's shift toward supporting same-sex unions is evidence of a widening cultural rift that could result in a backlash against a decision from the high court changing the definition of marriage.
"It won't happen in New York, but it will happen in places like Utah and South Carolina," Woodard said. "They're not going to be for this. They're not going to get on the bandwagon."
An average of eight national polls conducted this year show 51 percent of Americans approve of same-sex marriage while 43 percent oppose it, according to New York Times "FiveThirtyEight" columnist Nate Silver. A growing list of elected officials around the country, including GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, now back gay marriage.
In Utah, BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy found last July that 72 percent of Utah voters oppose gay marriage, but 71 percent now favor some form of legal recognition for gay couples.
"It's a much slower track," said center director Quin Monson. "We're unlikely to see politicians leading out on this kind of an issue. This is not an issue where there are a lot of politicians eager to be in front of the public, ahead of where public opinion is going."
Burbank noted former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. puzzled many Utahns by coming out in favor of civil unions for gay couples during his second term in 2009. Huntsman, an unsuccessful candidate for president, has recently announced his support for gay marriage and urged conservatives nationwide to join him.
Utah Republicans, including the governor, had little to say then about Huntsman's new stance. On Wednesday, Herbert issued a statement calling same-sex marriage "a complex issue that affects many people throughout this nation" and expressed his hope the Supreme Court would protect the sanctity of traditional marriage.
Conservative activist and former congressional candidate Cherilyn Eagar, who helped organize the pro-traditional marriage event at the Capitol Tuesday, said Utah has a "very strong tradition" of backing marriage as being between a man and a woman.
"Our leaders have been elected on that platform," Eagar said. "It's very difficult to predict the future, but I would certainly hope those that have these religious convictions that primarily drive their views would remain stable."
Utah's only openly gay legislator, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, said the state's politicians are in step with the Utah public on gay marriage, including the many Democrats who oppose same-sex unions.
But Dabakis, who also heads the Utah State Democratic Party, said the issue will be settled outside the state.
"The truth is, this is not going to be decided on a Utah level. It's just not," Dabakis said. "For most politicians, even politicians that privately tell me they are for gay marriage, there's no need to take the political hit of being for it. Because it's going to be decided in bigger arenas."
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company