Most Americans See Legalization of Gay Marriage as 'Inevitable'

Infographic: Map shows U.S. states and countries around the world where gay marriage is legal.
Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage, in 2004. (Image credit: Ross Toro, Life's Little Mysteries Infographics Artist)

Support for gay marriage has been building in the United States, and most Americans think it's only a matter of time before same-sex couples can legally wed, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

Seventy-two percent of Americans see the legal recognition of same-sex marriage as "inevitable," which includes 85 percent of gay marriage supporters and 59 percent of its opponents, Pew found.

Same-sex marriage is currently legal in 12 states and Washington, D.C. The poll comes as the Supreme Court is expected to hand down two major rulings this month that could change the legal status of same-sex marriage across the country.

The court will decide what to do with a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a law passed in 1996 that prevents the federal government from providing marriage benefits to same-sex couples legally wed by the states. The Justices will also make a ruling on a constitutional challenge to California's law banning gay marriage.

Pew's survey found that 51 percent of Americans favor legalizing gay marriage — a record high in Pew's polling history. But the issue is still polarizing, with 42 percent saying they oppose gay marriage.

About nine in 10 Americans report having gay or lesbian acquaintances, Pew found, and about half say have at least one family member or close friend who is gay. Knowing people who are gay can have a strong affect on attitude about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Among respondents who said they know a lot of people who are gay or lesbian, 68 percent said they favor gay marriage, Pew found, compared with just 32 percent of those who said they don't know any gay people.

Pew also found that religious beliefs can be a major factor in opinions on gay marriage. Forty-five percent of Americans say they think engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin, down from 55 percent in 2003. That belief is strongly tied to opposition to legalizing gay marriage.

Just 31 percent of Republicans favor making gay marriage legal, while 59 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents said the same, according to Pew. Regardless, Republicans are as likely as Democrats and independents, to view legal recognition for gay marriage as inevitable, Pew found.

In another sign of changing times, just 19 percent of Americans would be very upset if they learned their child was gay, Pew found. A poll in the Los Angeles Times in 1985 found that 64 percent of the public said the same.

Pew's poll was conducted May 1-5 among a sample of 1,504 adults.

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Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.