Study Shows Shift in Support for LGBTQ Rights Within Religious Groups

Just a week after the Supreme Court handed down key decisions pertaining to same-sex marriage, Barna Group researchers released a study that shows how much religious groups have shifted toward supporting LGBTQ rights since 2003.

Practicing Protestants were the only major faith group mentioned in the study in which a minority (32 percent) believes laws should be changed to give more freedom to the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community, though even that number is up eight percentage points from a decade ago.

A majority of practicing Catholics (57 percent), those from other faiths (63 percent) and those with no faith (89 percent) also believe LGBTQ people should be given more legal rights. In 2003, by comparison, the only group in which a majority said they should be given these rights were those with no faith (66 percent).

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But the attitudes of evangelicals, who make up about eight percent of the American population and are mostly a subset of the practicing Protestant group, have remained basically the same toward LGBTQ issues.

Five percent of evangelicals today favor changing laws to support LGBTQ concerns – a decline of seven percentage points since 2003. Ninety-three percent of evangelicals define marriage as being between one man and one woman, which is an increase from the 90 percent who defined it the same way 10 years ago. Nearly all evangelicals (98 percent) reject the idea that same-sex marriage is morally acceptable, as compared to the 95 percent who did so a decade ago.

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, addressed the generally unchanging nature of evangelical attitudes toward LGBTQ issues toward the end of the study, which is posted on the organization's website.

"Some will say this demonstrates evangelicals' principled behavior; others will claim this proves their repressive social views," said Kinnaman. "Either way, the data shows that evangelicals remain countercultural against a rising tide of public opinion. If the sands have shifted under evangelicals' feet in the last 10 years, we at Barna predict it will seem the ground has completely opened beneath them during the next 10. In part, that's because the very belief that same-sex relationships are morally wrong is deemed by many to be discriminatory and bigoted."

Gay rights advocates celebrated last week after the Supreme Court struck down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act and ruled that the sponsors of Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage, lacked the standing to defend the law. Each of the four major faith groups mentioned in the Barna study have in the last decade become less likely to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Seventy percent of practicing Protestants now define marriage that way, as compared to the 75 percent who did so in 2003. Similarly, 50 percent of practicing Catholics (down 14 percentage points), 40 percent of those from other faiths (down five percentage points) and 18 percent of those with no faith (down eight percentage points) now define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

But although the majority of all Americans (53 percent) now support LGBTQ rights, a smaller group (37 percent) is willing to say that same-sex sexual relationships are morally appropriate. Only 15 percent of practicing Protestants and 37 percent of practicing Catholics say these relationships are acceptable, while 71 percent of those with no faith and 50 percent of those from other faiths agree.

The research consists of two surveys, one from June 2013 and the other from September 2003, each of which involved interviews with more than 1,000 American adults.

In addition to examining responses from people of various religious groups, the study also showed that Americans' views of LGBTQ issues vary considerably by age group. Even practicing Christians under the age of 40 are more likely than older than 40 to support LGBTQ rights, to believe that same-sex sexual relationships are morally acceptable and to oppose the idea that marriage is only between one man and one woman.

Kinnaman says in many ways the Christian response to the LGBTQ community is "the defining social and moral issue of the day." With that, he says, believers must be ready to address questions pertaining to sin, marriage, a "theology of the body" and other complex topics.

"The Christian response to these issues has to be rooted in a deeply relational ethic – that sexuality is a relational and interconnected aspect of our humanity. That relationships matter, including those between people who disagree," said Kinnaman. "Our research on younger Christians shows many leave the church over questions on these complex issues. And unless they are given a robust and compelling vision for why they need to hold to those views – and how to embrace them in a humble-yet-livable way – we expect even more disaffection between young adults and the Church in the years come."

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