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GOP's same-sex marriage trap: Conservatives oppose it intensely

GOP's same-sex marriage trap: Conservatives oppose it intensely
Jim Bergefell, whose husband died two years ago in a state that does not recognize their marriage, addresses the media on April 28 after the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. (Johnny Bivera / AFP/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court may be just weeks away from declaring a nationwide right to same-sex marriage with a ruling likely to trigger public opposition -- and private sighs of relief -- from most Republican presidential hopefuls.

Why relief? The marriage issue increasingly has become a trap for Republicans, and a Supreme Court decision that takes the matter out of the political process would provide the easiest exit. The court is expected to rule this month on whether the Constitution protects marriage rights for gay couples.

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new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center highlights Republicans' predicament. By 57% to 39%, Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. But among Republicans, only about one-third agree.

Moreover, among those who describe themselves as conservative Republicans, 40% say the issue is "very important" to them, and they overwhelmingly oppose marriage rights for gay couples.

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Overall, the poll found, opponents of same-sex marriage are more likely than supporters to describe the issue as "very important." In part, that may be because about two-thirds of white, evangelical Protestants, who make up a large share of the opposition, say there is "a lot" of conflict between homosexuality and their religious beliefs.

For would-be Republican presidential nominees, that sets up a difficult problem. Support for same-sex marriage rights would put a candidate at odds with a huge bloc of voters in GOP primaries on an issue they deem "very important." But vocal opposition to those rights would put a candidate out of step with a large and growing majority of the public.

A Supreme Court decision most likely would render the issue moot as a topic for electoral debate, although questions such as whether business owners who oppose same-sex marriages can refuse to serve gay couples could still arise. As the debate in Indiana over that issue showed this spring, those questions can still create problems for the GOP.

Some Supreme Court decisions, of course, remain political issues long after the justices have ruled -- abortion is the most prominent example. But same-sex marriage seems unlikely to fall into that category. More than 7 in 10 Republicans say they believe that legal recognition of same-sex marriage is now "inevitable."

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For more on politics and policy, follow @DavidLauter on Twitter.

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