The majority of Utah voters oppose gay marriage, but attitudes toward some legal recognition of same-sex relationships have changed dramatically over the past eight years, according to recent survey data from the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
"Utah is seeing the same kind of movement that we see in the United States generally," said Chris Karpowitz, a BYU political science professor and fellow at the center. "We're getting massive change in public opinion in a very short period of time."
"What makes Utah voters different," Karpowitz says, is that they are moving "not toward full support of marriage equality but toward civil unions."
The poll found 72 percent of Utah voters oppose gay marriage. At the same time, 71 percent now favor some form of legal recognition, compared to 62 percent nationally, as reported in CBS/New York Times surveys.
In opting for this middle ground — the strong support of civil unions — Utah voters, especially younger voters, are, said another BYU political scientist, Kelly Patterson, "responding to arguments in the political environment around them, which trace back to these notions of equality and rights, but that seems to be circumscribed by their faith, and the arguments they hear about the importance of marriage."
In the 2012 Utah survey, 43 percent of voters supported civil unions, and 28 percent supported same-sex marriage. Nationally, 24 percent favor civil unions and 38 percent favor same-sex marriage.
Using two election exit polls and two surveys of voter panels derived from those exit polls, the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy has collected data on attitudes toward gay marriage at four time points beginning in 2004. That year, 54 percent of Utah voters opposed any form of legal recognition for same-sex relationships. The number dropped to 37 percent in 2009, 35 percent in 2010 and fell again to 29 percent in the new latest poll.
The BYU center's study used the same questions posed by CBS/New York Times polls over the same time period. Those national results likewise showed a drop in opposition to any legal recognition, though not nearly as dramatic.
In the CBS polls, 38 percent of voters nationally opposed any form of legal recognition in 2004. That number dipped to 33 percent in 2012 after a slight bounce upward to 43 percent in 2005.
Patterson, also a BYU political science professor and fellow at the center, acknowledged that much of the shift in Utah attitudes occurred during volatile years that the center's data does not capture.
That five-year gap, from 2004 to 2008, witnessed intense debates across multiple states over the definition of marriage. This culminated in the dramatic 2008 battle over California's Proposition 8.
The major shift in Utah is indicative of a larger trend in the same-sex marriage debate, Patterson said.
Patterson suggested that utilitarian arguments for marriage based on strictly on sociology and measurable effects on children and family do not carry the same force with he public as rights-based arguments.
"It is difficult to make an argument in modern American culture that there are curbs on what individuals can do and how individuals live their lives," Patterson added.
Of the Utah shift toward more acceptance of civil unions, Karpowitz said, "I think it is clear that we see movement in the same direction as we see movement in the rest of the country, but it doesn't go quite as far as especially young people in the rest of the country would want to go."