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Religious beliefs, contact with gays and lesbians and opinions on same-sex marriage

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Some of the strongest opposition to same-sex marriage is generated by religious groups and leaders. Simultaneously, many opinion polls and studies have shown that close personal contact with homosexuals is associated with an increased likelihood of support for same-sex marriage. So how much can contact with gay persons affect the views of religious individuals?

A 2012 study from the University of Maryland, “The Cross-Pressures of Religion and Contact with Gays and Lesbians, and Their Impact on Same-Sex Marriage Opinion,” examines how the interaction of these two often-countervailing pressures plays out and influences policy preferences on marriage. Published in Politics and Policy, the study is based on data from two separate sources: the Kinder Houston Area Surveys from 2001 and 2009; and the 2006-07 Common Content surveys from the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES). The study, by Brittany H. Bramlett of the University of Maryland, distinguishes between casual contact with gay persons and closer contact through family or friendship.

The study’s findings include:

  • Having a close relationship with a gay or lesbian individual — a friend or family member — had the greatest impact on the views of Latino Catholics and black Protestants: for Latino Catholics, having such contact diminished support for a ban on same-sex marriage by 12 percentage points on average;  for black Protestants, the effect was 5 percentage points.
  • Several things may explain this effect on Latino Catholics and black Protestants: a stronger affiliation between historically marginalized groups; church teachings about equality; and a possible stronger split between religious commitment and political opinion on this issue.
  • However, the effect of having casual contact with a gay person — a co-worker or acquaintance — is not significant for most religious groups, including white and black Protestants. In fact, “The predicted probability of support for the ban is actually greater by about three to four percentage points for white mainline Protestants and white Catholics with a gay coworker or acquaintance.”
  • Among religious groups, only the views of Latino Catholics seem influenced by more casual acquaintance with gay or lesbian persons: such relationships are associated with a 3- to 5-percentage point decrease in the likelihood of support for a same-sex marriage ban.
  • Among persons unaffiliated with any religion, close personal contact with a homosexual was associated with 8 percentage point decrease in the probability of support for a ban on same-sex marriage. Casual contact with a homosexual person was associated with a 3- to 5-percentage point decline for the unaffiliated.
  • In sum, “Having a close friend or family member who is gay increases the likelihood of supporting same-sex marriage for members of all religious traditions examined here except for white Protestants (evangelical and mainline). The effects are generally greater for the unaffiliated, black Protestants, and Latino Catholics, but there may also be potential for opinion movement for white Catholics.”

The researcher concludes, “On the whole, these findings should encourage same-sex marriage advocates. People do not abandon religious teachings easily, but contact theory predicts that meaningful contact with the other should at least have some influence on opinion. While some of the changes in probability of support for a same-sex marriage ban seem small (three to five percentage points), even small changes make a difference in opinion over time.”

In related research, a 2011 study, “The Young and the Restless? The Liberalization of Young Evangelicals,” finds that young evangelicals are more open to acceptance of same-sex marriage than are older evangelicals.

Tags: gay issues, religion, civil rights

    Writer: | Last updated: May 15, 2012

    Citation: Bramlett, Brittany, H. “The Cross-Pressures of Religion and Contact with Gays and Lesbians, and Their Impact on Same-Sex Marriage Opinion,” Politics & Policy, February 2012, Vol. 40, Issue 1, 13–42. doi: 10.1111/j.1747-1346.2011.00337.x.

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    Media analysis

    Read the issue-related Monkey Cage blog post titled "If Same-Sex Marriage is So Popular, Why Does It Always Lose at the Ballot Box?"

    1. What key insights from the blog and the study should reporters be aware of as they cover same-sex marriage issues? What are the key questions that should be informed by data?

    Study analysis

    Read the full study titled “The Cross-Pressures of Religion and Contact with Gays and Lesbians, and Their Impact on Same-Sex Marriage Opinion.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?