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Millennials And Same-Sex Marriage: A Waning Divide

Marriage equality supporters take part in a march and rally ahead of U.S. Supreme Court arguments on legalizing same-sex marriage in New York on Sunday.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP/Getty Images
Marriage equality supporters take part in a march and rally ahead of U.S. Supreme Court arguments on legalizing same-sex marriage in New York on Sunday.

The U.S. Supreme Court hears two important cases this week on the on same-sex marriage, an issue that a new poll says young Americans support in ever larger numbers.

Some of that shift in national polling is due to the increasing impact 18 to 32 year olds, known as the millennial generation, have on American politics. Among that age group, support for same-sex marriage is at an all-time high of 70 percent, according to the latest Pew Research poll.

Michael Dimock, director of Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, tells Don Gonyea, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the pace at which millennials back gay marriage has rarely been matched.

"You saw radical transformations in American attitudes about race in the '60s, '70s and '80s," Dimock says, "this isn't inherently unprecedented, but for the past decade or so this is certainly one of the biggest shifts we've seen."

That shift also extends to young conservatives and those that identify as Republicans, Dimock says, a group whose support for same-sex marriage has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.

"The trajectory is happening across party lines [and] across religious lines," he says.

There's no denying, however, that the issue of same-sex marriage is still divisive, Dimock says. As it stands, 44 percent of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage compared to the 49 percent in favor, hardly a public consensus, he says.

Even among young people, Dimock says the debate is not over despite the high percentage supporting the issue.

"The issue of marriage is still a stumbling block for some people even in this generation; it's a minority, but it is still a stumbling block," he says.

Same-Sex Marriage And Young Conservatives

Common among conservatives are views like those of 24-year-old Allison Howard.

"I think we need to keep the debate open," Howard says. "I just don't think we need the Supreme Court to step in next week and decide for all 50 states what marriage is."

Howard, a communications director for the group Concerned Women for America, says how she was raised shaped her views on same-sex marriage.

"How I was raised, my belief, my worldview and ... two millennia of history has shown the importance of marriage between a man and a woman," she says.

Eric Teetsel agrees. Teetsel is the 29-year-old executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, an organization founded in 2009 by conservative activist Chuck Colson to tackle the issues of "life, marriage and religious freedom."

Teetsel tells NPR's Gonyea that he was disappointed to see so many young people come out in support of same-sex marriage at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.

"Those of us who understand the meaning of marriage and why it matters simply have to do a better job of educating everyone ... on these issues," Teetsel says.

Teetsel says he's also disappointed by the position that Republicans just need to stop belaboring the issue and focus on issues on which they can gain ground.

"It's just unprincipled," he says. "You don't hear us talking about backing away from other core principles that aren't necessarily popular. ... to change your principles in order to win voters over is the kind of thing that we view negatively in American politics."

An Impending Shift

Shifting views, even among Republicans, create practical political challenges for leaders of the GOP looking at how the issue will affect voters.

"If we are to build a big-tent party, and we are to start winning elections, what we have to stop being is exclusive," says Ana Navarro, a veteran Republican strategist who supports same-sex marriage. "We have to stop telling Republicans that they don't pass a litmus test because we may disagree on one or two or three issues. We have to have much more diversity of thought and much more tolerance within the Republican Party."

Navarro says the Republican Party simply cannot close its eyes to an inevitable shift.

"At some point, it's going to be an irrelevant question, because it's going to happen whether we like it or not," she says.

The shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage has been steady and fast. But whether that movement will eventually lead to any kind of policy shift within the Republican Party remains an open question.

And as the debate within the GOP is grows louder, party leaders say they hope it is respectful and not divisive.

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