Support broad for amendment banning gay marriage, poll says

Findings seen as helping GOP, harming Democrats


The latest New York Times/CBS News poll has found widespread support for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage. It also found unease about homosexual relations in general, making the issue a potentially divisive one for the Democrats and an opportunity for the Republicans in the 2004 election.

Support for a constitutional amendment extends across a wide swath of the public and includes a majority of people traditionally viewed as supportive of gay rights, including Democrats, women and people who live on the East Coast.

Attitudes on the subject seem to be inextricably linked to how people view marriage. For a majority of Americans - 53 percent - marriage is largely a religious matter. Seventy-one percent of those people oppose gay marriage. Similarly, 33 percent of Americans say marriage is largely a legal matter, and a majority of those people - 55 percent - say they support gay marriage. The most positive feelings toward gay people were registered among respondents younger than 30 and among those who knew gay people.

The nationwide poll found that 55 percent of Americans favored an amendment to the Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman, while 40 percent opposed the idea.

The findings come after the highest court in Massachusetts ruled 4-3 last month that same-sex marriage was permissible under the state's Constitution. That ruling followed a 6-3 decision in late June by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down anti-sodomy laws.

President Bush had been noncommittal about a constitutional amendment immediately after the Massachusetts ruling, with the administration worried that support for a ban on gay marriage would alienate moderate voters. But last week, Bush voiced his support, saying, "I will support a constitutional amendment which would honor marriage between a man and a woman, codify that."

The statement signals the White House's increasing confidence that it can exploit the matter in the presidential campaign, both to energize its evangelical supporters and to discredit the eventual Democratic nominee.

Most of the Democratic candidates oppose gay marriage but favor civil unions. Howard Dean, who is leading in the polls for the Democratic nomination, signed a law when he was governor of Vermont allowing civil unions, an action that Republicans have used to portray him as too liberal for mainstream America.

The court rulings generated extensive publicity and concern, not only about same-sex marriage but also about having the courts set social agendas that have not been approved by the legislative process.

"We have found that the more people focus on it, the less they support it," said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, which strongly opposes gay marriage and is working actively for a constitutional ban.

The Times/CBS News poll was conducted from Dec. 10 through Dec. 13 in telephone interviews with 1,057 people. It carries a margin of sampling error of three percentage points.

This poll and other surveys show that as the courts have extended legal rights to gays this year, Americans have become increasingly uncomfortable with same-sex relations.

For decades, a majority of Americans have not approved of homosexual relations. That had begun to change, until the Supreme Court ruling in June and the Massachusetts ruling in November. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in July found that 54 percent of respondents said homosexual relations should be legal. Only 41 percent of the respondents in the latest poll said they should be legal.

Richard Waters, 71, a retired elementary school teacher in Little Valley, N.Y., and a Republican, said in a follow-up interview to the poll that he strongly supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. "I think any kind of amendment that says `You shall not' will help," Waters said. "I just don't think it's right for two men to go parading around in public or for two women to be doing the things they do. It's against God's law. That's right in the Bible that it's wrong."

Theresa Eaton, 49, a financial analyst in Corona, Calif., and also a Republican, agreed. "I still believe that marriage should be between a man and woman," she said. "If I knew that we had a neighbor who was gay, I would not let my nieces and nephews go close by there. I don't want to accept their lifestyle. It can be acquired, and it is not right."

The poll also found that by a 61-34 margin, Americans oppose gay marriage. They are slightly more accepting of civil unions to give gays some of the same legal rights as married couples, with 54 percent opposed to civil unions and 39 percent supportive.

An amendment, which would require passage by two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-fourths of the states, would override any state court ruling or legislation.

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