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Will ‘Sea Change’ in Public Opinion Matter in Same-Sex Marriage Ruling?

It isn’t often that the country stops what it’s doing as long as it did this week to pay attention to a Supreme Court argument — in this case, to two of them, both with the potential to shake up social and cultural norms across the land.

It was riveting to listen to the justices speak with passion about what gives the federal government the right to decide what marriage is, or to hear the U.S. Solicitor General allege the unfairness of the law enacted in 1996 to deny benefits to same-sex married couples because, among other things, “the spouse of a soldier killed in the line of duty cannot receive the dignity and solace of an official notification of next of kin.”

Throughout these arguments, there were references to the “sea change” in public opinion, and “this institution, which is newer than cell phones or the Internet.” Indeed, polls show that in the past 10 years, there’s been a significant shift in favor of same-sex marriage, driven largely by the younger generation.

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The Pew Research Center reports the growth in support is among the largest changes in public opinion on any policy issue over this time period. It’s hard to think of anything so controversial that compares. Ten years ago, 47 percent of Americans said homosexuality should be accepted by society; today that number has jumped to 57 percent. Among women, it’s even higher, 61 percent. For the young, born between 1980 and 1995, it shoots up to 74 percent. Even among so-called Generation X’ers — today’s 33 to 48 year olds — fully 62 percent are accepting, compared to 50 percent a decade ago.

Along partisan lines, the shift has been most pronounced among Democrats and self-described moderate/liberal Republicans. By almost two to one, Democrats today disagree that same-sex marriage undermines the traditional family. On the other side of the coin, conservative Republicans are only slightly less inclined to believe same-sex marriage is harmful: 78 percent compared to 81 percent in 2003.

Why has this change come so rapidly? Several theories are offered. The gay rights movement has encouraged young people to “come out” as early as they are comfortable, so more people actually know a family member, a friend, a co-worker or someone else in their lives who is gay. What used to be whispered about is much more openly discussed; in the larger metropolitan areas, few think twice about seeing a same-sex couple out in public. This is not to say there isn’t still discrimination, even deplorable gay-bashing in less tolerant corners of the United States. After all, the polls that report growing acceptance also show 44 percent of Americans still oppose legalizing same sex marriage. But the negative attitudes are less prevalent than they used to be.

The factor that may have been the most influential, however, is the children of gay couples. The growing realization that children are growing up and thriving with nurturing parents of the same gender has begun to change the face of the gay rights movement. Everyone took note when conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose coveted “swing” opinion was being sought by both sides in the debate, told the lawyer arguing against same-sex marriage that the “40,000 children in California” who “live with same sex parents…want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case.”

The lawyer arguing to uphold California’s Proposition 8 tried to change the subject, suggesting the children aren’t the issue. But Kennedy had introduced an image that lingered in people’s minds — and perhaps, in the minds of the justices.

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