Most Mormons remain against gay marriage, new poll shows, but that opposition is fading fast; younger LDS support it

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters march outside of Temple Square along North Temple Street on Friday, Nov. 7, 2008.

While most Mormons and other conservative Christian groups still eschew same-sex marriage, a new study shows dramatic erosion in that opposition.

Public Religion Research Institute researchers reported this week that LDS opposition to same-sex marriage, legalized in all 50 states in 2015, had dropped by 15 percentage points — from 68 percent in 2013 to 53 percent in 2017. Among younger Mormons, ages 18 to 29, most (52 percent) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.

Nearly 7 in 10 (69 percent) Latter-day Saints favor laws — similar to the landmark Utah statute endorsed by the LDS Church in 2015 — that protect LGBTQ people from housing and employment discrimination.

“This should be no surprise,” says Erika Munson, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges, a grass-roots group seeking to enhances ties between the LGBTQ and LDS communities. “Every Mormon family, or extended family, has an LGBTQ member, and more and more of these people are being open about their [sexual] orientation.”

That is especially true among LDS youths, who are discovering more supportive attitudes from friends, social media and their parents.

“They are finding they are not alone, so they are more willing to be open and honest about who they are,” Munson says. “When it is a loved one who is explaining this to you, it is hard to turn them away.”

While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still instructs its lay leaders to consider Mormons in same-sex unions as “apostates” and to deny baptism to children of such couples until they turn 18, the Utah-based faith has generally sounded a more conciliatory tone toward LGBTQ members.

Munson points to comments by top LDS leaders about striving for a balance of “love and law” in accepting gay members, even while upholding marriage between one man and one woman.

“Institutionally, the church has made significant efforts to change the tone of instruction in terms of how we are to show love and support,” Munson says, “and how the gospel of Jesus connects to not judging and just loving.”

She added, however, that “LGBTQ Mormons and their allies are still too often ostracized, criticized and judged at church,” calling for a hard look at “the LGBTQ-LDS piece of our community’s troubling [youth] suicide statistics.”

PRRI noted a similar softening toward same-sex marriage among other conservative Christians. Opposition from white evangelical Protestants fell from 71 percent in 2013 to 58 percent in 2017. Nearly 6 in 10 (57 percent) of black Protestants objected to such unions in 2013. Today, 48 percent back it, and 43 percent balk at it. Hispanic Protestants echoed that swing, going from 65 percent opposed in 2013 to 45 percent in 2017.

The PRRI survey, drawing on 40,000 interviews with a margin of error of plus or minus 1.2 percentage points, also found that, among major religious groups, only Mormons and white evangelicals (by identical 53 percent margins) continue to support “religiously based service refusals,” such as recent cases of bakers or wedding chapels declining services to gay and lesbian couples.

PRRI reported 86 percent of Unitarians, 73 percent of Buddhists, 72 percent of religiously “unaffiliated” Americans, and 70 percent of Jewish Americans oppose such refusals. Sixty-five percent of black Protestants, 60 percent of whites in mainline Protestant denominations, 60 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 59 percent of white Catholics, along with 59 percent of Muslims, 57 percent of Orthodox Christians, 56 percent of Hindus and 55 percent of Hispanic Protestants also reject religiously based refusals to serve gays and lesbians.

Then, there is the generational gap. PRRI reports that the younger the respondents, the more likely they are to favor allowing same-sex marriage. Mormons are no exception.

While Latter-day Saints 65 and older remain opposed to same-sex unions (32 percent favor it), those ages 18 to 29 are solidly (52 percent) behind legalized same-sex marriages.

Patrick Mason, who oversees Mormon studies at Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University, said the results were “loud and clear that the views of Mormons ... essentially track very well” with how other religious groups are adjusting to “a culture that is shifting, and rapidly so.”

The question may be whether the LDS Church’s traditionally elderly leadership — President Russell M. Nelson is 93 and his counselors in the governing First Presidency are in their mid-80s — will be able to hang onto the obedience of the faith’s younger members.

“[The leadership] can count on the support of the oldest members, but they cannot count on the support of, basically, the millennials ... especially on these kinds of social issues,” Mason says. “In other words: What happens when the membership no longer believes what the leadership is teaching?”