The willingness of religious congregations to accept gays and lesbians as members, and even volunteer leaders, increased significantly between 2006 and 2012, except in the case of Catholic churches, a new study shows.
The overall acceptance of gay and lesbian members increased from 37.4 percent to 48 percent, but decreased from 74 percent to 53 percent in Catholic churches, over the six years, according to Duke University's National Congregations Study, which involved interviews with representatives of 1,331 American congregations.
The number of congregations open to gays and lesbians in volunteer leadership roles also increased from about 18 percent to 26.4 percent, the study says.
"The increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians is a well-known trend in America," Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religious studies, and divinity, says in the study. "Churches are no exception."
The respondents – who were from American churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and other houses of worship – were asked whether or not an openly gay or lesbian couple in a committed relationship would be permitted to be full-fledged members of the congregation, and whether or not such people would be permitted to hold all volunteer leadership positions open to other members.
Chaves attributes the decline in the acceptance of gays among Catholics to fallout from the child sexual abuse scandal, which some associate with homosexuality.
The acceptance of gays as members rose from 16 percent to 23.5 percent in white, conservative Protestant churches. But there was no change in the acceptance of gays in church leadership positions, the study notes, as only 4 percent of white, conservative Protestant churches said in 2012 that gays and lesbians could hold volunteer leadership positions.
But the increased acceptance of gays and lesbians among black Protestant churches, white liberal churches, and non-Christian congregations were large enough to offset these patterns and produce an aggregate change that is remarkably large for just a six-year period, the study adds.
"Congregations reflect general cultural trends, but they also reflect divisions on this issue," Chaves says.
Pew Research noted earlier this year that its polling in 2001 showed that Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57 percent to 35 percent margin, but support for gay marriage has steadily grown with 54 percent of Americans today supporting it.
Federal judges in many states have struck down state amendments and laws banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional since the U.S. Supreme Court last June squashed a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.
Same-sex marriage is currently recognized in 19 states – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington – and the District of Columbia.