‘Moral and Religious Views’ and Proposition 8

At the center of the argument in the 136-page ruling that Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker issued overturning Proposition 8 was the argument that “moral and religious views” alone are not a “rational basis” to deny same-sex couples the right to marry in California. A new major public opinion survey conducted by our firm, Public Religion Research Institute, provides a new look at the shifting climate of public opinion in California and the moral and religious motivations of those who supported and opposed the measure.

Although supporters of Proposition 8 are already working to appeal the ruling through the federal courts, there is evidence that if the issue reappeared on the ballot today, it would not pass. The PRRI survey found that a majority (51%) of Californians now say they would vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to 45% who say they would vote to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

Moreover, two years after its passage, only about 1-in-5 (22%) Californians believe that the passage of Proposition 8 was a good thing for the state. Most Californians believe Proposition 8 was either a bad thing for California (29%) or believe it has not made any difference (45%). Even among religious groups most supportive of Proposition 8—white evangelical Protestants and Latino Protestants—significantly less than half (only 41% and 34% respectively) report that the passage of Proposition 8 was a good thing for California.

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The PRRI survey also offers insights into the reasons supporters and opponents of Proposition 8 gave for their vote. More than 8-in-10 who reported voting ‘Yes’ on Proposition 8 say they did so either because they wanted to preserve traditional marriage and values (48%) or because same-sex marriage violated their religious beliefs (33%). On the other side, a solid majority (56%) of those who reported voting ‘No’ on Proposition 8 say they did so because it discriminates against gay and lesbian people.

One clear upshot of these findings is that Judge Walker’s conclusion that supporters of Proposition 8 based their decision primarily on their own moral and religious views is on solid empirical footing. On the other hand, opinions of opponents of Proposition 8 converge more clearly on the single idea of discrimination. But it’s important to remember that those opposing Proposition 8 because they believe it discriminates are also largely composed of people of faith for whom there is a connection between their religious beliefs and the principle of nondiscrimination. Nearly two-thirds of this group claim a religious affiliation, and also say religion is somewhat, very, or the most important thing in their lives.

Another way of seeing the complex role of morality and religion in the debate is to note that there are major religious groups lining up on both sides. Solid majorities of Latino Catholics and white mainline Protestants, along with a majority of white Catholics, would now vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, while solid majorities of African American Protestants, white evangelical Protestants, and Latino Protestants report that they would vote to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

The PRRI survey confirms what many in California already know: that it’s finally time to throw out the old frame that erroneously characterizes the debate over same-sex marriage as occurring between secular liberals and conservative people of faith. Acknowledging the role of morality and religion on both sides of the debate certainly makes it more complex, but it’s a more accurate read of the shifting landscape.

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