Tide is turning on public perception of same-sex marriage

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's decision to let the people decide on same-sex marriage may not work out quite the way he, or the Catholic Church, had hoped it would.

A new Quinnipiac poll released today shows that voter support for same-sex marriage in New Jersey has reached a new high, with 57 percent of those polled saying they support legal recognition of gay marriage. Among white Catholics, 52 percent say they support same-sex marriage while 43 percent are opposed.

First, a little background: New Jersey is one of several states that recognize same-sex civil union partnerships. In 2009 the legislature attempted to pass a same-sex marriage bill before Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat who supported the initiative, left office after losing to Republican Christie, a Catholic who promised to veto such a bill. The state's five dioceses and the N.J. Knights of Columbus launched a campaign against the bill, which ultimately failed to get the needed votes to make it to Corzine's desk before he left office.

But the bill came back and last month it passed the legislature. And as promised, Christie issued his veto and called for a state referendum on the issue.

Christie was no doubt counting on the fact that voters have in every case turned down proposals for legalizing same-sex marriage or approved efforts to limit the definition of marriage to being only between a man and a woman. In the states where gay marriage is recognized it has always been the legislature, not a popular vote, that has made the decision.

But the tide may be turning. Last month, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a new study showing a nationwide increase in support for same-sex marriage rights in 2011. Overall 46 percent of Americans said they support legal marriage rights for same-sex couples, up from 42 percent a year earlier. Among religious groups, Catholics are one of the largest supporters, with 52 percent saying they support same-sex marriage (up from 46 percent in 2010) and only 37 percent saying they are opposed (down from 42 percent).

That's no doubt troubling news for church leaders who have poured a great deal of time and effort into the issue. In New Jersey, the bishops have focused on trying to explain the church's teaching on marriage to convince the Catholic faithful that God's plan for marriage doesn't include same-sex partnerships. Other bishops, including Archbishop John Nienstedt in St. Paul-Minneapolis, where $650,000 was spent last year on efforts opposing same-sex marriage, have also made marriage a priority issue. And as Kristen Hannum reports in our March cover story, those efforts have not yielded the results the church was hoping for.

Catholic leaders have taken a two-pronged approach on marriage, both trying to offer a faith perspective on the issue and to mobilize members of the church to take political action. But if the poll numbers are accurate, the church's attempts aren't working and in fact more Catholics (and Americans in general) are drifting in the other direction.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Catholic who struggled to balance her public role with her private faith on the issue, is among those who came to the conclusion that what her church and the state each call "marriage" are two very different things. "I have always been uncomfortable with the position that I have taken publicly," Gregoire said in January shortly before signing a bill to legalize gay marriage in her state. "And then I came to realize the religions can decide what they want to do but it is not OK for the state to discriminate."

It seems that more and more Catholics are coming to the same conclusion that what the church teaches on marriage shouldn't influence how the state defines legal partnerships between consenting adults. If the church's leaders hope to reverse that trend, it looks like they're going to need a new strategy.

Related:
Pride and Prejudice: The uneasy relationship between gays and lesbians and their church