As the laws governing sexual conduct change, the American public is polarized between those who say everyone should obey the laws’ endorsement of sexual conduct and those who sympathize with the dissenters from the law.
In an online and mail survey of a nationally-representative sample of 4538 adults conducted August 16 to September 12, 2016, the PEW Research Center found that the United States public is strikingly divided in their sympathies toward religious people who want to go against recently established laws concerning sexual and gender identity practices. PEW researchers see the survey as portraying an American public opinion divide that pits beliefs in religious liberty against beliefs in nondiscrimination. However, the study also implicitly injects how American attitudes toward obedience to the law impacts public opinion.
To elicit responses, the researchers used short stories such as, “As you may know same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. Some argue that businesses that provide wedding-related services such as catering or flowers should be able to refuse to provide those services to same-sex couples if the business owner has religious objections to homosexuality.”
Although PEW researchers believe that the vignettes are relatively neutral, the introduction specifying that the sexual behavior is legal frames the religious dissent as going against the law. Americans are pretty law-abiding and look askance at dissent that breaks the law. For example, President Barak Obama recently chided Black Lives Matter activists who may be occasionally ”doing it the wrong way” in their demonstrations. Likewise, the survey found that even about one out of five people who say homosexual behavior is wrong believe that all businesses regardless of their religious beliefs should be required to provide services to same-sex couples.
Now, that the laws on sexual morality have changed, many Americans seem to be settling their opinions on sexual morality along the lines dictated by the law. However, there is still plenty of division in public opinion about many gender or sexual issues.
Almost all Americans (93%) think that using contraception is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue at all. Although the use of many contraceptives is disputed by official Catholic teachings, 86% of Catholics don’t see what the fuss is about and say that the use of contraceptives is morally acceptable or not a moral issue.
Most adult Americans (62%) think that homosexuality is morally acceptable or not a moral issue. However, about one-third (35%) still believe it is wrong.
The legalization of homosexuality communicates strongly that society now sees homosexuality as either morally acceptable or not a moral issue. Fifteen percent of Americans say that their views on homosexuality have changed toward acceptance over the past few years. These people say that their accommodation came about because society as a whole is more accepting, that they have a friend or family member who is gay, that the behavior is a matter of private choice, or for some other reason.
The public is still sharply divided on whether businesses may go against the law by refusing to provide wedding services to same-sex couples and on whether transgender people should be allowed to use whatever restroom that matches their self-selected gender identity.
Yet, even a fifth of White evangelicals and 46% of Black Protestants (found to hold mainly evangelical beliefs in other surveys) believe that businesses must obey the current law regarding provision of wedding services to same sex couples. About a fourth of evangelicals and almost half of Black Protestants take the view that transgender people should be able to use whatever restroom that match their current gender-identity.
Regular church attenders are much more likely to say that a business owner should be able to refuse wedding services to gay couples. This willingness to support going against the law may be because of deeper beliefs or may come from the social support of like-minded believers who congregate regularly together.
A majority (53%) of Americans see having an abortion as morally acceptable or not a moral issue. However, almost half (44%) of the public says that abortion is wrong. Evangelicals (89%) and Catholics (83%) who attend religious services weekly or more are very opposed to abortion on moral grounds. 41% of White mainline Protestants also see abortion as morally wrong.
PEW also found that the two sides on the sexual and gender disputes have little sympathy with each other’s viewpoint. Perhaps, once a sexual or gender view becomes a matter of law, the social division becomes hardened so that one side sees law-breakers and the other side sees repression of religious liberty.