June 17, 2008
Monday evening, at 5:01 pm, California became the second state to legally recognize marriages between same-sex couples.
Some Biblical literalists may be disappointed that no natural disasters befell the state in the hours immediately following the implementation of the state Supreme Court’s May 15th decision. Indeed, in this quake-prone land where seismologists warn that the next Big One can happen at any time, the first notable earthquake that occurred after 5 pm had a relatively small magnitude — 3.1 on the Richter Scale.
Ironically, the epicenter of that quake was in Kern County, one of only two counties where the Clerk announced that, once marriage equality becomes the law, she will stop performing marriages for any couple — different-sex or same-sex. (In a few other California counties, Clerks didn’t perform marriages prior to the Court ruling and won’t begin to do so now that the law has changed.) The Kern County Clerk reportedly made her decision after consulting with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian Right legal organization that opposes gay rights.
Marriage equality opponents who are inclined to seek omens in natural occurrences may be scratching their heads about this one.
Supporting Marriage Equality versus Endorsing Discrimination
Despite the general absence of literal temblors (so far), the next five months promise plenty of figurative groundshaking as religious and political conservatives try to convince Californians to undo the Supreme Court ruling by amending the state’s constitution on November 4.
Statewide opinion polls will be a major source of information about the attitudes of California voters during that time, and many of them will focus on the percentages of Californians who endorse marriage equality versus those who don’t.
However, it’s probably inaccurate to assume that the NO votes on the proposed constitutional amendment will come solely from voters who support marriage equality. Although that bloc constitutes a reliable foundation for the NO vote, they will also be joined by other Californians who, while not ready to endorse marriage equality, aren’t willing to write discrimination into the state constitution.
Interestingly, some data relevant to this point come from two recent polls that sampled residents of New York State. Both surveys included questions about general attitudes toward marriage equality and about New York Governer David Paterson’s recent announcement that he has directed state agencies to implement a February ruling by a State Appellate Court and recognize the marriages of same-sex couples performed outside New York. Paterson issued the order on May 14, the day before the California marriage decision was announced. New York does not currently issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The polls — conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute from June 3-8, and the New York Times from June 6-11 — differed slightly in their findings. The Quinnipiac poll found a bit more support for marriage equality among New Yorkers than the Times poll (42% vs. 38%), and somewhat greater approval for Gov. Paterson’s order to state agencies (53% approved, compared to 48% in the Times poll). These differences are within the polls’ margins of error.
What’s interesting, however, is that both polls revealed a (roughly) 10-point gap between general support for marriage equality and support for the Governor’s order. If we assume that Gov. Paterson’s action was endorsed by all New Yorkers who support marriage equality, we still must account for another 10 percentage points in support for it. That support had to come from survey respondents who said they don’t favor marriage equality.
In other words, some members of the public don’t endorse full marriage rights for same-sex couples, but nevertheless are supportive of government actions that will effectively provide those rights.
We can see a similar pattern in the recent California Field Poll. When presented with a choice between (A) full marriage, (B) civil unions or domestic partnerships, and (C) no legal recognition for same-sex couples, 45% of Californians chose Option A, that “gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry.” The interviewers subsequently asked one of two versions of a question about a ballot initiative. For both versions, majorities of respondents (51% and 54%) said they opposed changing the California Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Here again, there’s a gap — 6 or 9 points, depending on how the ballot measure was described. Thus, some Californians who don’t fully support marriage equality are nevertheless unwilling to vote to ban it.
This pattern highlights the strategic importance of distinguishing between opposition to marriage equality and support for an anti-gay ballot measure that tampers with the state constitution. We shouldn’t assume that Californians will vote for the anti-equality amendment simply because they aren’t personally ready to embrace marriages between same-sex couples.
Minding the Gap
One colleague suggested to me that the gap might reflect the fact that many adults believe legal recognition of same-sex marriages is inevitable, and thus see recent events as part of an inexorable trend, one that they don’t wish to resist. There are data to back up this idea. For example, a 2004 LA Times poll found that 59% of adults in a national sample believed that “recognition of same-sex marriage is inevitable.”
In addition, the patterns are reminiscent of a consistent finding in public opinion research. Although not allowing something would appear to be equivalent to forbidding it, people are generally more reluctant to “forbid” than to “not allow.”
In 1941, on the eve of World War II, Donald Rugg published a now classic study in which survey respondents were asked their opinion about public speeches against democracy. Roughly half were asked if they believed “the United States should allow public speeches against democracy,” and the other half were asked “Do you think the United States should forbid public speeches against democracy?” While 62% said the US should not allow such speeches, only 46% said they should be forbidden. This finding has been replicated in numerous other surveys in the years since Rugg’s article appeared.
A similar dynamic seems to be operating in the domain of marriage equality. Voters are less willing to endorse banning marriage between same-sex couples than they are to support simply defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
In 2004, for example, researchers at CBS News conducted an experiment. Roughly half of 1545 poll respondents were asked “Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. (United States) Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman?” The other half were asked “Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. (United States) Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman, and outlaw marriages between people of the same sex?” (emphasis added by me).
While 59% favored the proposed amendment when it was described simply as allowing only different-sex marriage, only 51% favored it when the language about outlawing same-sex marriage was included.
These differences aren’t huge, but they suggest that voters are less likely to forbid marriage than to simply refrain from allowing it.
Framing the CaMP Act
Thus, it is probably no accident that the proposed constitutional amendment on the November 4 ballot, labeled the “California Marriage Protection Act,” was crafted to avoid explicit references to banning marriage for same-sex couples or denying rights to gay and lesbian Californians. Instead, it is worded to say simply that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
Opponents of the CaMP Act will do well to stress that voting for the amendment means Californians will be permanently banning (or forbidding or outlawing) all marriages between lesbian and gay couples.
Voters might be reluctant to take the affirmative step of enacting marriage equality through the ballot box. But, now that the Supreme Court has declared the denial of such equality unconstitutional, Californians may also be unwilling to forbid same-sex couples from marrying.
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Here are some useful readings about the “forbid/not allow” distinction:
Rugg, D. (1941). Experiments in wording questions: II. Public Opinion Quarterly, 5, 91-92.
Bishop, G. F., Hippler, H.-J., Schwarz, N., & Strack, F. (1988). A comparison of response effects in self-administered and telephone surveys. In R.M. Groves et al. (Eds.), Telephone survey methodology (pp. 321-340). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Hippler, H.-J., & Schwarz, N. (1986). Not forbidding isn’t allowing: The cognitive basis of the forbid-allow asymmetry. Public Opinion Quarterly, 50, 87-96.