Friday 28 December 2012

Accelerating British Support for Equal Marriage, in Church

Three polls in the last 10 days have shown strong and rapidly expanding public support for marriage equality in law - including support for same - sex weddings in Anglican churches.

gay church wedding 3

The British opponents of marriage equality have been vociferous in their insistence that government proposals are in contravention of the public wishes. This is nonsense - reputable opinion polls have consistently shown that a clear majority of UK voters support the proposals for same - sex marriage. Three polls over the last week have confirmed this, once again.


A Yougov poll released last week, for fieldwork conducted 13th and 14th December, showed that 55% support "changing the law to allow same - sex couples to marry". Just 36% are opposed. The strength of support is also on the side of equality - 30% are "strongly" supportive, and 21% strongly against.

In common with regular findings from the US, support is heavily skewed by age group: only the 60+ age group is opposed, with those aged 16 - 24 heavily supportive, by 74% to 16%. Politically, both Labour and Liberal Democrat voters are strongly supportive, with Conservatives equally divided, 40%/40%. (It is likely that UKIP voters are the only significant party clearly against, but their responses are not disclosed in the cross - tabs). Together with reports of mounting rebellion in the Conservative parliamentary party, this gives the lie to Conservative claims to being the natural home for gay and lesbian voters - but I'm not going to hammer that point.


Another poll just released, focuses specifically on government proposals for same - sex marriage, in church, and the deliberate exclusion of the Church of England from this provision. This was a Comres survey conducted for the Independent, which reports

The public want the Government to go further on gay marriage by allowing Church of England vicars to conduct same-sex weddings, a poll forThe Independent reveals today. As some religious leaders used their Christmas sermons to attack David Cameron's plans, the ComRes survey suggests that the Church of England is out of touch with the public by opposing gay marriage. It defines marriage "as being between a man and a woman".

By a margin of 2-1, people oppose the Government's proposal to make it illegal for the Church of England to conduct gay marriages. Asked whether its vicars should be allowed to perform such ceremonies if they wanted to, 62 per cent of people said they should and 31 per cent disagreed, with seven per cent replying "don't know".

- Independent

The Independent does not release any more detail, continuing instead with reports of the responses by some bishops  to the plans, and Comres has not published any on its website. Pink News has a little more:

The idea of gay couples marrying in Church of England weddings is more popular among women with the figures 64 per cent in favour to 27 objecting. Among under 44's, almost three-quarters of people support the idea of church gay weddings. It is only in the over 65's where there is a majority in opposition, although it is not sizable - 50 per cent to 38 per cent.

Guardian / ICM

More than three in five voters support David Cameron's wish to introduce gay marriage, according to a poll conducted for the Guardian. The strong backing for a change in the law comes after the archbishop of Westminster queried the democratic legitimacy of the coalition plans.

The ICM poll conducted just before Christmas found 62% of voters now support the proposals, with half this number – 31% – opposed. Most previous polls have found opinion leaning the same way, although the two-to-one margin revealed on Wednesday is particularly emphatic.

What is most striking in this poll, is in how sharply opinion has shifted in favour, during the course of the year.

An ICM online survey for the Sunday Telegraph in March asked the identical question – which expressly reminds people that the option of civil partnerships already exists for gay couples – and established a 45%-36% lead for the reformers.

That significant hardening of opinion during the year will encourage Cameron, whose embrace of gay marriage has proved controversial, not only with religious leaders but also with the Tory backbench. And the new poll reveals a particularly significant swing towards the reform among the Tory base.

The Opponents' Claim

And yet - the opponents of equal marriage regularly trumpet the findings of their own survey, which allegedly finds that a strong majority of voters are against gay marriage.

The Government’s plan to redefine marriage in order to open it to same-sex couples could face serious opposition from the general public, according to a poll commissioned by Catholic Voices which is published today, a week before the Government begins its official consultation on the matter.

Seven out of 10 British people believe that marriage should continue to be defined as a lifelong union between a man and a woman, and more than eight out 10 think children have the best chance in life when raised by their biological parents, the ComRes online survey of more than 2,000 people found. The poll also found that people think the state should promote marriage, and that most people support the idea of civil partnerships.

“The results show that most people support the idea of civil partnerships for gay people while being firm that marriage should remain between a man and a woman,” said Austen Ivereigh, Catholic Voices coordinator. “The survey also shows that most people understand marriage to be a conjugal institution, which benefits children above all.”

- Catholic Voices

How are these seemingly contradictory results reconcilable?

This merits a closer look at the details of the survey on which it was based, conducted in February 2012, and released in March. Here's the crunch question, taken from the ComRes published tables :

Q.1 Do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?

There are two distinct technical problems in putting the question this way. As Anthony Wells has frequently noted at his respected blog, UK Polling Report, asking people whether they "agree or disagree" with any proposition, has a built-in tendency to produce results that favour "agree". When the question is presented as "Do you agree or disagree that gay marriage should be legally recognized", the result is likely to be completely different. A second problem is that the question on equal marriage was presented as the final statement in a series on marriage, with the preceding statements acting as a softening up process, leading to the result the survey sponsors were hoping for.

An additional, non - technical flaw lay in the presentation of the survey results. Although the questions did not in any way refer to the law, results were presented as if they represented opposition to changing the law. Here's the exact statement:

Marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman

This refers simply to "continue to be defined" - not "defined in law", as the survey sponsors have presented it, in their campaign in opposition to marriage equality. Furthermore, the application is highly selective. It has been interpreted as opposition only to same - sex marriage, but could equally be used to support a campaign to end legal divorce, or to criminalize adultery. But these are claims the so-called "Coalition for Marriage" does not make. They, and the American National Organization for Marriage, are not really interested in working to strengthen marriage, or the genuine threats to existing marriage - merely ensuring that marriage should not be extended to same - sex couples. They are not working to strengthen marriage, but to restrict and so weaken it.

Significance of these findings

What can have caused this remarkable shift? 'Nothing in particular has occurred during the  year to move opinion - except the consultation itself. Before the government announced its intentions, there was very little debate about gay marriage. There appeared to be a fairly general acceptance that civil partnerships existed, and were virtually equivalent in law to full marriage - so that change was not needed. But that changed with the launch of the consultation process. Suddenly, private discussions, public debates and organized campaigns were everywhere - including the largest ever petition drive the country has yet seen.

All three of the most recent surveys are in broad agreement with the consistent findings of all previous polling research on gay marriage and the law: a clear and growing majority of the British people want marriage equality. The overwhelming support from the youngest age groups will ensure that this support will continue to grow, and is likely to accelerate once it becomes fact, and part of everyday life. This latest poll suggests that with public support also for gay marriage in the Church of England, pressure will start to build not just for gay marriage, but also for that denomination to revise its own opposition.

There is a delicious irony in complaints from the opposition that there was not proper "consultation". It is clear that there was - and it was this very process of consultation that led government to take very seriously the point made by the Church of England submission, that as the established church, legal provision for equal marriage could force it to provide for gay marriage in contravention of its own laws. It was for this reason that the Church was given a specific and very explicit provision in the present proposals, to prohibit it from conducting same - sex marriages. This has raised an outcry in some quarters over the apparent discrimination for which it has been singled out. This is not a flaw in the proposals, but in the Church itself. It can resolve the problem in one of two ways - either by taking a decision to remove its own present absolute prohibition on gay marriage, leaving decisions to local dioceses (as applies in Canada and the US), or by applying for disestablishment - removing its present privileged position in British religious life. Neither course is likely to be easy - but the problem is of the Anglican bishops' own making.

A rather different problem confronts the Conservative Party. Yet another recent poll has shown that for his clear support and vigorous action in support of gay marriage, David Cameron now has strong support from gay and lesbian British voters - but his own party is bitterly divided on the issue.  He is losing support among Conservative members as party leader, the promised free vote in parliament will see many Tory MP's voting against - and on the sidelines, his party is hemorrhaging voters and members to UKIP - in part, over gay marriage. David Cameron is out of touch with much of his own party base - but that base itself is out of touch with the country as a whole, and especially with the younger voters it must attract to win in the future.

Looking ahead, the message is clear. If there ever was any doubt that the country was ready for equal marriage, the consultation process has dispelled them. Support is overwhelming and growing, across a wide spectrum of the population. There has been extensive public discussion and debate, informally, in the press, on-line, in radio and television broadcasts, and in a formal government consultation process. The opponents have had ample opportunity to make their case against, which they have done to the best of their ability, with extensive practical support from the Catholic Church. They have made their case - and lost the argument.

The British people have instead decided in favour. Equal marriage in civil law, is on its way. Equal marriage in an expanding number of churches, will follow. It's just a matter of time.


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