Washington DC, USA - Conventional wisdom may suggest that religious groups generally oppose same-sex marriage and legal rights for gay Americans, but a new survey released Monday afternoon suggests there are major religious groups on both sides of the debate. According to the survey, young people are driving public opinion to the tipping point on both gay marriage and theological acceptance of gay people.
The poll, conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute, surveyed 3,000 adults in the United States and analyzed results according to age, religion, and ethnicity or race. It's findings show that far more members of the "millennial" generation, which includes adults ages 18 to 29, strongly supports same-sex marriage and believes homosexuality is moral and compatible with religion than do members of older generations.
"What's striking is that there's a generation gap that persists all the way down, even among more conservative groups," said Robert Jones, lead researcher and CEO of PRRI.
Among the survey's findings:
More than six in 10 millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, 69 percent support gay adoption, 71 percent support civil unions and 79 percent support employment discrimination protections. Among senior citizens, one in three support gay marriage, while 51 percent support civil unions and 58 percent support employment discrimination protections. The survey counts senior citizens as people who are 65 or older.
Among millennials who are white evangelical Christians, 44 percent support legalization of same-sex marriage, compared to 12 percent of evangelical senior citizens and 19-percent of evangelicals overall.
Almost 7 in 10 millennials (69 percent) believe religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgemental about gay and lesbian issues. Only 37 percent of senior citizens share the same view.
Disregarding religion, nearly half (49 percent) of Republican millennials support gay marriage, compared to 19 percent of Republican senior citizens and 31 percent of Republicans overall.
Jones said that younger people may be more supportive of legal protections and recognition for gay people because they are more likely to know them or have gay friends.
"One of the things we know about the millennial generation is that they are one of the most diverse in American history. They have a much more diverse set of social networks and much more diverse family settings than those who have come before them," he said. "That's one of the strongest predictors of one's views on a whole range of policies around gay and lesbian rights."
Besides the findings on generational differences, the survey also found breakdowns among religious denominations on gay issues.
Majorities of non-Christian religious Americans (67 percent), Catholics (52 percent) and white mainline Protestants (51 percent) favor legalizing same-sex marriage. Six in 10 black Protestants are against gay marriage, while that number jumps to 76 percent among white evangelical Protestants. The survey does not break down results by individual non-Christian religions
Slightly more Catholics believe their church's view on homosexuality is too conservative (43 percent) than those who believe is it right (43 percent). Just six percent think the church's positions are too liberal. Among Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, 37 percent say the church is too conservative on gay issues.
More than six in 10 Americans say that "negative messages" from places of worship contribute either "a lot" or "a little" to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.
More generally, the survey also asked about Americans' views of gay people, such as how difficult it is to live as a gay person and if gay people should come out of the closet. A majority (51 percent) said that it is "very" or "somewhat difficult" to be openly gay, while 45 percent said it is "not too" difficult or "not at all" difficult." More than one-third (34 percent) said coming out is a good thing for society, while 18 percent said it is bad for society.