A survey released Monday from the Pew Research Center indicates American support for same-sex marriage could be leveling off after several years of dramatic growth in acceptance of equal rights for gays and lesbians.
The study's authors caution it's too soon to draw any definitive conclusions. But the new poll released Monday found a 5 percentage point drop since February, from 54 percent to 49 percent, in Americans who want legal recognition for same-sex relationships. The percentage of those opposed increased during that same period, from 39 percent in February to 41 percent last month.
The poll of 2,002 adults, conducted Sept. 2-9, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
"Since we've seen this upward trend for so long, we're cautious because it's too early to say what this means for long-term trends," said Jessica Martinez, a researcher in Pew's Religion and Public Life Project. "As we continue to ask this question in other surveys, we'll keep an eye on where this moves."
The findings were part of a survey in which nearly three-quarters of Americans said religious influence in public life was waning and most saw that as a negative trend. About half of respondents said churches and houses of worship should speak out more on public issues.
Nearly half of all the respondents said businesses that provide services for weddings, such as florists, should be allowed to deny service to same-sex couples if the owners have religious objections. The Pew survey also found the percentage of people who consider gay relationships sinful had increased from 45 percent a year ago to 50 percent last month, although other surveys have found that people with religious objections don't always oppose legal recognition for gay relationships.
The campaign for recognition of gay marriage has grown to become a broad mass movement supported in recent years by a majority of Americans. A decade ago, only about 30 percent of Americans accepted same-sex marriage. Now, 19 states and the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage, while petitions for recognition in several other states are moving through the courts.
The Gallup organization said support for gay marriage first rose above the 50 percent mark in its surveys in 2011, and has remained above half since. Gallup's latest survey, this past May, found acceptance of gay marriage at a new high of 55 percent. But the group's researchers found support was increasing by smaller margins than it had during the era of fastest growth so far, between 2009 and 2011.
Martinez said the drop in support in the Pew poll was not driven by any particular religious or political group in the sample, but was a change across the board. Pew used similar groups of respondents in terms of political and religious views for both surveys, she said. The number of Americans who told Pew they were undecided on gay marriage increased from 7 percent in February to 10 percent last month.
Robert Jones, chief executive of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit group that conducts surveys on religion and public life, said it's particularly challenging to interpret surveys on gay marriage because the numbers have changed so dramatically over a very short period. He noted that support has been driven by younger people, who tend to be far more accepting of same-sex relationships than their parents. He said polling by his organization over this past summer showed fluctuations in support, but backing remained between 56 percent and 51 percent.
"The fundamentals underneath the trend remain very solid — in the generational breaks that are driving this," Jones said. "The long-term curve on this trend doesn't show any retreat."