There is strong support for gay marriage in the United States, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, but there is even stronger support for allowing businesses to deny services to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
Americans favor same-sex marriage by 44% to 39%, with 15% having no opinion, according to the poll published Thursday.
It also found that 57% of respondents said they favored a religious exemption, and 39% said they were opposed. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The question has taken on more urgency in recent weeks after a string of legal battles in New York, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Illinois and New Mexico.
The Mormon Church also recently weighed in, calling on state legislatures to pass laws that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination, but calling for a religious exemption.
More than 36 states and the District of Columbia have already approved same-sex marriages and the issue will be argued this term before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Those who back an exemption argue it is part of the constitutionally protected right of freedom of religion. Opponents argue that the Constitution also protects individuals from facing discrimination.
"At its most basic proposition it is whether you can turn away someone for the way they are," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents same-sex couple in several states who say they were denied wedding services provided by florists, photographers or bakers.
The ACLU supports religious rights unless they impose harm or discriminate against others, Melling said. The denial of services is "the kind of discrimination we don't sanction."
The Alliance Defending Freedom said the issue involves the personal freedom of store owners who refuse to provide a service because it would violate their religious beliefs.
"Every American, from the founding of our nation, has been guaranteed the freedom to live and work faithfully," the group said in a statement emailed by vice president Greg Scott. "The poll demonstrates that most Americans still cherish our fundamental freedoms – free speech and freedom of religion."
"The core issue is whether it is lawful to force Americans to choose between conforming their beliefs, speech and actions at the government's command and facing harsh punishment for resisting compelled conformity."
According to Freedom to Marry, an advocacy group, 17 states and the District of Columbia have nondiscrimination laws with protections in the area of public accommodations for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Four more states have nondiscrimination laws with protections in public accommodations regardless of sexual orientation only.
Twenty-nine states have neither.
"Creating licenses to discriminate is a very dangerous path for America to go back down," said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry. "Fifty years ago, businesses were allowed to refuse to serve people based on their skin color, and as a nation, we decided that was wrong. Treating people differently based on who they are is discrimination."
There have been battles over the religious exemption across the country.
In Colorado, a Christian baker stopped doing wedding cakes after a state commission said he had discriminated against gay men who wanted a cake for their celebration.
An upstate New York administrative law judge fined a couple who refused to rent their farmhouse for the wedding of two women.
There have also been proceedings against a wedding in New Mexico, a florist in Washington state and wedding chapels in Nevada, according to published reports.
The most recent case comes from Oregon, where a Christian baker refused a wedding cake for a lesbian couple and now faces fines of as much as $75,000 after an administrative judge ruled that the couple's rights were violated.
A hearing on damages is set for March.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries said they found "substantial evidence" that Sweet Cakes by Melissa, in the Portland area, violated the Oregon Equality Act of 2007.
"The law provides an exemption for religious organizations and schools, but does not allow private businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation, just as they cannot legally deny service based on race, sex, age, disability or religion," bureau spokesman Charlie Burr said in a statement.
Aaron and Melissa Klein said they refused to supply the cake because of their Christian beliefs. They eventually closed the retail shop after protests and now operate out of their home.