A strong majority of the public disapproves of the Episcopal Church's decision to recognize the blessing of same-sex unions, and a larger share of churchgoing Americans would object if their own faith adopted a similar practice, according to a new Washington Post Poll.
So broad and deep is this opposition that nearly half of all Americans who regularly attend worship services say they would leave their current church if their minister blessed gay couples -- even if their denomination officially approved those ceremonies, the survey found.
As courts, companies and congregations across the nation consider what standing to give gay couples, the poll demonstrates strong public disapproval of any religious sanctioning of same-sex relationships. It underscores the sharp distinction most Americans make between relationships blessed by the church and those recognized by the law.
"Americans are saying, 'We're willing to move pretty far on this issue, we're much more tolerant than we used to be, but don't mix it up with religion and God,' " said Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life.
Opposition to blessing gay unions is strongest among Americans who go to church every week, The Post's poll found. Three out of four frequent churchgoers opposed the Episcopal convention's decision, and a similar proportion said they would object if their own faith took a similar step. But even among those who acknowledged that they rarely or never attended church, nearly six in 10 objected to blessing gay couples.
Julio Rincon, 28, an infrequent churchgoer in Albany, N.Y., said he would not mind if a gay couple registered a civil union "down at City Hall." But, he said, "I do have a problem if it were to take place in a church."
The poll also found, however, that public acceptance of same-sex civil unions is falling. Fewer than four in 10 -- 37 percent -- of all Americans say they would support a law allowing gay men and lesbians to form civil unions that would provide some of the rights and legal protections of marriage.
That is a precipitous, 12-point drop in support found in a Gallup Organization survey that posed the question in identical terms in May, before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law against sodomy and Justice Antonin Scalia argued in his dissent that the court was on a slippery slope toward legalizing gay marriage.
Other surveys have found, however, that some opponents of same-sex unions would tolerate extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. A recent survey by the Human Rights Campaign found that 33 percent supported granting civil marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples "as long as churches do not have to recognize or perform these marriages." An additional 17 percent would accept extending those rights to gay couples but "do not support it." Nearly half, 47 percent, said they were opposed.
For the Post survey, a total of 1,003 randomly selected Americans were interviewed Aug. 7-11, including 420 who said they attended services at least once a week. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the overall sample and 5 percentage points for the results among frequent churchgoers.
The survey found that 60 percent of all Americans opposed last week's decision by the Episcopal Church's general convention to give its bishops the option of allowing the blessing of same-sex relationships in their dioceses. Thirty-three percent favored the decision, and 7 percent were unsure. Nearly two in three respondents who attended church at least a few times a year said they would object if leaders of their own faith took similar action.
"I am entirely against it. I don't think it is correct -- at least that's the way it is in the Bible," said William Nelson, 71, a Catholic who lives in Malden, Mass.
Nelson considers the Episcopalians' decision as part of a coordinated assault on American institutions and values.
"What you're seeing here is the big play by gays and lesbians to control a lot of things," he said. "Take TV, for example. How many programs came on this year that have to do with gays and lesbians? . . . The [Episcopal] priests are thinking, if [they] come out against it, they're going to lose those people and lose quite a bit of money. The straight ones won't leave."
In other telephone interviews, many religious Americans acknowledged that they were torn by feelings of sympathy toward gay couples and what they understood to be the teachings of their church.
Several respondents drew a sharp distinction between giving gays equal protection under the law and authorizing the church to bless or otherwise sanction what they believe is a relationship condemned by God.
"I don't believe what the [Episcopal] bishops did is a good thing," said Sloane Whitehead, 32, an Episcopalian who lives in Lexington, S.C. "I am a reasonably tolerant person. I guess I would be for giving same-sex couples some additional protection from the government. But I draw a distinction between church and state, much like the Constitution does."
Whitehead fears that the church's decision is a "baby step" toward approving gay marriage, which he said would weaken the church's commitment to children and families.
"What they have done is bend slightly. But if they bend here and bend there, suddenly things change. . . . Society should be flexible to change, but I question whether religion should be."
Others disagree. Darlene Midlang, 55, a Lutheran who lives in North Branch, N.Y., said she agreed with the Episcopal Church's action and would be pleased if her denomination followed in its footsteps.
"It seems like the church is always blessing wars. Why shouldn't it support love?" Midlang said. "If people love each other and they want to have a public recognition of that love, why shouldn't we support it?"
Opposition to the Episcopalians' decision is strongest among evangelical Christians, the survey found. More than eight in 10 rejected blessing gay unions, and two out of three said they would abandon their home church if it began performing commitment ceremonies for homosexual couples.
"If my local church blessed gay unions and [the decision] was not movable, I definitely would leave," said Sue Tegtmeier, 51, of Sumner, Iowa, who is a member of the Vineyard, an evangelical group. "It's against the word of God. . . . The Lord didn't make these rules to be mean to us. We will find our greatest amount of health and peace by following his law."
Among Americans who attend church at least a few times a year, 47 percent said they would attend services elsewhere if their church blessed same-sex unions. An equal number said they would not leave.
Whitehead, the Episcopalian who opposed blessing ceremonies, is among those who would reluctantly continue to worship at their churches even if the priests conducted blessing ceremonies.
"That may seem contradictory," he said. "I believe in tolerance. I am torn and not certain what is right or wrong here. I don't believe making some kind of statement by walking out sends the right signal in front of God."