WASHINGTON -- Americans' attitudes toward the lives and choices of gays and lesbians have changed radically since Massachusetts first legalized same-sex marriage a decade ago.
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A new survey finds a significant shift toward tolerance across every religious, political and age group and every region of the country, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. PRRI's survey, released Wednesday, reveals the ramifications of these changes in family, church and community life.
"Only the issue of marijuana looks anything like this in terms of rapid movement in favorability," Jones said. "But with that one exception, it's unusual to see this much change in a relatively short amount of time."
Overall support for same-sex marriage jumped 21 percentage points, from 32% in 2003 in a Pew Research survey to 53% in 2013 in PRRI's survey. During this period, gay marriage became legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act that blocked federal recognition of legally wed gay couples.
Since 2003, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America opened their doors to gay bishops and clergy, even as most other major U.S. denominations kept their teachings against homosexual behavior intact. Yet over the decade, PRRI found, the number of people who say same-sex marriage is against their religious beliefs dropped, from 62% to 51%.
Within specific groups, the drop was less dramatic but still apparent:
* For white evangelical Protestants, the number fell from 84% to 78%.
* Black Protestants, down from 66% to 61%.
* Catholics, down from 65% to 53%.
* White mainline Protestants, down from 59% to 45%.
Only one group, the fast-growing numbers of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion, showed an increase, rising from 18% to 26%. Jones said the increase came largely from less-educated minorities who have moved away from church but still consider themselves religious.
Overall, most people (51%) say sex between adults of the same gender is morally wrong. Still, 43% -- and 56% of millennials (ages 18-33) -- say it is morally acceptable.
Even so, "support for legality outstrips moral acceptability in several religious groups," said Jones. For example, 47% of white Catholics find gay sex to be morally acceptable, "but 58% of the same group say they favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. It is not only that they are more tolerant of a legal norm. They are shifting their own moral lens on the issue."
Meanwhile, religious leaders' continued preaching against homosexual behavior is driving some people out the church doors, Jones said.
PRRI found people perceive three major religious groups to be "unfriendly" toward lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people:
* The Catholic Church (58%)
* The Mormon Church (53%)
* Evangelical Christian churches (51%)
Among those who say they left their childhood religion and now have no religious identity, nearly one in four (24%) say their church's negative teachings or treatment of LGBT people was an important reason they left. That rises to 31% of millennials, damaging churches' ability to bring in -- and keep -- young adults, Jones said.
At the root of change: A personal connection to someone who is LGBT. The number of Americans who say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian rose from 22% in 1993 to 65% today. Again, millennials lead the way: 71% say they have a close friend or relative who is gay or lesbian.
"We looked at the power this has over views toward social policy issues," said Jones, and found that the two related factors -- age and social connection -- "overlap to create a different worldview of 'normalcy.'"
And those with personal ties to an LGBT person are almost twice as likely to favor same-sex marriage (63% to 36% against). PRRI reports: "This 'family and friends' effect is present across all major demographic, religious and political groups."