As the Supreme Court prepares a decision on the fate of Proposition 8, nearly six in 10 California voters now believe same-sex marriage should be legal, with support rising among older voters and in all regions of the state, a new poll has found.
The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll reveals that attitudes in the state toward gay marriage have changed significantly since Californians banned it in 2008 by a vote of 52% to 48%. The Supreme Court will decide this month whether the ban will continue.
"There has been movement across the board" in favor of same-sex marriage, said Dave Kanevsky, research director of the American Viewpoint, a Republican polling firm that helped conduct the survey. "Every group has moved."
The poll found that 58% of the state's registered voters believe same-sex marriage should be legal, compared with 36% against, a margin of 22 points. When the same pollsters asked that question three years ago, 52% favored gay marriage and 40% opposed it, a 12-point spread.
Most national polls this year have found majority support, but only one of those surveys reported it as high as 58%. The average was roughly 51% in favor of gay marriage. As in the rest of the country, more women (63%) than men (52%) in California favor same-sex marriage.
Younger California voters also support gay marriage by larger margins than older voters, the poll found. Whereas 76% of voters ages 18 to 29 support legalizing the unions, only 52% of those ages 50 to 64 agree.
Still, the shifts among older voters are dramatic. Voters 65 and older are now almost evenly divided — 46% in favor, 47% against — compared with just three years ago, when seniors opposed gay marriage by 19 percentage points.
"Even the least-receptive audiences for same-sex marriage in California are split," said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm that participated in the poll. "There has been an across-the-board sea change on this issue."
Support is strongest in the Bay Area (69%), followed by Sacramento, the rest of Northern California and the Central Coast (59%), Los Angeles County (58%) and all of Southern California (52%).
The only region without majority support is the Central Valley, where voters who have an opinion are evenly divided, 45% in favor, and 45% against, a six-point jump in support from three years ago. The rise in support across all regions has occurred since 2009.
Pollsters said it was impossible to predict how a future ballot measure reinstating marriage rights would fare if the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8. But they agreed that voters were more likely now than in the past to approve such an initiative.
"You see sentiment moving their way, but I would caution that ballot language matters, and campaigns matter," Kanevsky said.
Feelings on both side are intense, the poll found. Whereas nearly half the respondents (49%) said they strongly support marriage for gays, 30% just as equivocally oppose it. Only 9% of supporters and 6% of opponents said their feelings are not strong.
Knowing someone who is gay matters, according to the poll. Voters who said they know gays are more likely to support legalizing same-sex marriage.
Just under two-thirds of respondents (65%) who have a gay family member, friend, acquaintance, neighbor or co-worker said they favor legalizing same-sex unions. More than half who said they didn't know any gay people oppose legalization.
Milana Kvitalashvili, 22, an assistant at a public relations firm, said having a gay friend has made the issue more personal for her.
"When it is a friend of yours, it feels like it is you who are getting discriminated against," Kvitalashvili said.
The survey also found that a majority of California's Catholics believe gays should be permitted to wed, 51% to 44%, despite opposition by church leadership.
Slightly more than half of Protestants disagree. Opposition rises with frequency of church attendance.
At least half of all ethnic groups surveyed favor same-sex marriage. Whites are most supportive (61%) followed by Asians (58%) Latinos (51%) and African Americans (50%).
Adam Cohn, 20, who is of both African American and Latino heritage, attributed the disparity to the role of the church in the black and Latino communities. The Inglewood dental student said he favors same-sex marriage; his father — "more of the old-fashioned style" — opposes it. "My best friend is a lesbian, and I support her," Cohn said.
Most Democrats support same-sex nuptials, but the issue continues to divide Republicans, the poll found. A majority of liberal to moderate Republicans are in favor; most who describe themselves as conservative are against.
Nick Fund, 44, a maintenance worker in Fresno, attributed his consistent opposition to his Pentecostal Christian beliefs. "I don't believe it is right for a man and man to be together," he said. "It's not that I don't like them personally. I just don't like that particular thing."
Twelve states and the District of Columbia have authorized same-sex marriage. Massachusetts led the way in 2004 when its top state court ruled that gay couples had a constitutional right to wed.
The California Supreme Court followed suit in May 2008 with a decision that gave gays both the right to marry and the strongest possible constitutional protection from discrimination.
By the time Proposition 8 passed six months later, an estimated 18,000 gay couples in California had already exchanged vows. Those marriages remain valid.
In addition to ruling on Proposition 8, the Supreme Court is expected to decide this month whether to strike down a law that has barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Married gay couples do not receive the same federal benefits as opposite-sex spouses.
Several poll respondents said in interviews that they considered same-sex marriage a matter of civil rights.
"Basically, we are all human beings and needed to be treated as such," said Marian Mann, 57, a homemaker in Ventura.
The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll was conducted jointly by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and American Viewpoint. The poll, which surveyed 1,500 registered voters by telephone from May 27 to June 2, has a margin of sampling error of 2.9 percentage points in either direction.