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Polling Marriage: Words Matter

October 13, 2010, 2:20 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Last week we highlighted some of the top findings about the Tea Party and Religious Right from this year’s American Values Survey by Public Religion Research, but the comprehensive poll has a lot more good information beyond just the toplines.

The poll found a significant increase in support for marriage equality over the last two years, a finding that matches Pew’s report last week and the long-term trajectory of this issue from a fringe position twenty years ago to an almost even split today.

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(Graph from FiveThirtyEight)

But the PRRI poll suggests that these numbers may actually be under-estimating support. When those opposed to marriage equality were asked a follow-up question clarifying that it would only apply to “civil marriages like you get at city hall,” support skyrocketed 22 points, from 37% to 59%.

To be clear, the survey didn’t directly ask the motivations for these results, but it appears that respondents made a particular connection between legal marriage and religious ceremonies. The swing in opinion after the clarification suggests that their opposition may have been rooted in the mistaken belief that marriage equality would require their religious traditions to perform such ceremonies.

While myths like this can be difficult to dislodge, PRRI’s finding should come as welcome news to supporters of marriage equality. The reality is that gay and lesbians marrying is no grave threat to religious liberty, and this data suggests that efforts to ameliorate those fears can help change minds.

Update: James leaves a good comment that marriage equality is a better term than “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” as they communicate a separate kind of marriage. Most polls don’t make this distinction, which is why it crept into the post, but on review, the PRRI poll doesn’t so I’ve changed the wording to be more precise.

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One Response to “Polling Marriage: Words Matter”

  1. James Clark says:

    Another point about how words matter… the preferred term these days is “Marriage Equality” — NOT “gay marriage” or “same sex marriage.” Those terms reinforce the myth it’s something new and different that “redefines” marriage. but really we’re talking about equal access to the exact same institution.