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What gives? Polls show differing results on amendment support

EDITORS’ NOTE: This is the 10th story in a series examining the national debate over same-sex “marriage.” The series appears in Baptist Press each Friday.

Updated April 8, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A CBS News/New York Times poll in December showed that 55 percent of Americans supported a constitutional marriage amendment. The same month, an Annenberg poll showed 52 percent opposed.

What gives?

The answer, a Gallup editor says, resides in the questions that are asked. While Americans oppose same-sex “marriage” by a wide margin in nearly every poll, they are somewhat undecided as to the remedy.

“It’s confusing in part because the public itself doesn’t have a really strong view,” David W. Moore, senior editor of the Gallup Poll, told Baptist Press. “What I interpret from all the numbers that I’ve seen is that the public generally is opposed in principal to granting the status of marriage to gays, but is ambulant about whether a constitutional amendment should be added to the Constitution to forbid that.”

While most polls have shown that the public supports a constitutional amendment, a few have not. The difference in poll numbers could be as simple as the word “forbid.” For instance:

— The New York Times poll asked, “Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman?” Fifty-five percent favored an amendment, while 40 percent opposed it.

— The Annenberg poll asked, “Do you favor or oppose the federal government adopting an amendment banning gay marriage?” Fifty-two percent were opposed, 40 percent in favor.

“If you say ‘forbid,’ you’ll get more people opposed than if some different kind of wording is used,” Moore said. “When that happens, that usually suggests that people’s views on the matter are not really rock solid. It doesn’t mean that some people don’t have rock-solid views, but it means that there may be enough people out there whose views are fairly tepid, who are therefore influenced by the nuances in the way the questions are worded.”

The fact that polls play a key role in political debates only magnifies the importance of the poll’s wording.

Another example of the power of polls can be found in the media.

The Shreveport Times ran an article on same-sex “marriage” Jan. 31 saying that a “majority of Americans” in an ABC News/Washington Post poll opposed a constitutional amendment. Other media outlets, including The Los Angeles Times, quoted the poll.

But the poll did not ask a yes-or-no question about an amendment. Instead it asked, “Would you support amending the U.S. Constitution to make it illegal for homosexual couples to get married anywhere in the U.S., or should each state make its own laws on homosexual marriage?” Thirty-eight percent of those polled favored the amendment, while 58 percent favored states rights.

To complicate the issue, the ABC News poll also asked Americans, “Do you think it should be legal or illegal for homosexual couples to get married?” Fifty-five percent said it should be illegal.

While the federal government does not recognize same-sex “marriage,” there is no national law preventing legalization in individual states.

Focus on the Family’s Glenn Stanton said the same-sex “marriage” issue forces Americans to choose between core beliefs.

“Americans, by nature, favor rights. It’s what we’re about,” said Stanton, a senior analyst for the Colorado-based organization. “It’s what freedom is about. But we also value values — the value of life and the value of marriage. And when you put those two things in conflict, you have some interesting [results].

“… It’s the balance between what we’ll tolerate for other people and what we want for ourselves.”

The fact that the issue has been in the news only a few months also could explain the fluidity of the polls. Unlike issues such as the war in Iraq or the economy, Americans have had little time to consider the consequences of same-sex “marriage.”

When the issue has made the headlines, much of the coverage has focused on same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses.

“Their case has been made, and they have persuaded all that they’re going to persuade,” Stanton said. “We haven’t even started to get out there and make our case yet. When we do, I think we’ll have a big sway.”

Most polls have shown support for an amendment, and several have suggested an increase in support for an amendment following President Bush’s endorsement of one. For instance:

— A March CBS News/New York Times poll asked, “Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow marriage ONLY between a man and a woman?” Americans supported the amendment by a margin of 59-35 percent — an increase of 5 percent in support from the December poll.

— An August Associated Press poll asked, “Congress is considering a constitutional amendment that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Would you favor or oppose the amending of the Constitution to specify marriage should be between a man and a woman?” Fifty-four percent favored it, 42 percent opposed it.

“It could very well be that if it becomes a very big issue in the presidential campaign that it might help solidify public opinion one way or the other,” Gallup’s Moore said. “… [But] to try and come down to a pinpoint accuracy where the public stands [today] on this issue is going to be difficult.”

As Americans begin considering the consequences of same-sex “marriage,” Stanton said, the poll numbers — all of them — will begin favoring an amendment. Same-sex “marriage” would affect Americans’ understanding of the differences between male and female, he said.

“What you’re doing is forcing upon society to rethink what they hold and believe, and that’s going to work itself out in very real, practical ways.”

It could even affect those who are personally opposed to same-sex “marriage” but who nonetheless think it should be legal, Stanton said. For example, such a person could be given a same-sex “wedding” invitation by his coworker. Does he lie to his friends and tell them he can’t make it? Or does he tell them the truth and admit that he’s personally opposed?

“[Legalized same-sex ‘marriage’] is going to create crises in neighborhoods and in workplaces,” Stanton said. “Schools are not going to be able to teach anything but [that] marriage is a union of two emotionally connected people.

“The fallout from this is literally unimaginable.”

For information on the national debate over same-sex “marriage,” visit BP’s story collection at:

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  • Michael Foust