A majority of Kentucky voters continue to oppose same-sex marriage, but public opinion appears to be shifting on the issue.
A new Herald-Leader/WKYT Bluegrass Poll found that 55 percent of registered voters oppose same-sex marriage, compared with 35 percent who support allowing gays and lesbians to marry in Kentucky. Ten percent weren't sure.
Nearly a decade ago, 75 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in the state. Last spring, a poll by the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 65 percent of Kentuckians thought gay marriage should be illegal.
In the latest Bluegrass Poll, opinions on same-sex marriage varied greatly with age, education and ideology.
Among voters ages 18 to 34, 47 percent favor gay marriage and 46 percent oppose. For those older than 65, opposition rose to 62 percent.
Only 21 percent of poll respondents with a high school education supported allowing same-sex marriage, compared with 46 percent of those with a four-year college degree.
Among self-identified conservatives, 83 percent oppose the idea, while 77 percent of liberals favor it. Moderates were split, with 41 percent supporting gay marriage, 43 percent opposing and 16 percent not sure.
"That seems in line with other polls we've seen: There is a growing level of acceptability among a younger generation," said Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which opposes same-sex marriage. "Hollywood has done its work. It has made a concerted effort to normalize the homosexual lifestyle, and it's working, even in Kentucky."
The Bluegrass Poll was conducted in partnership with The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. SurveyUSA interviewed 1,082 registered voters from Jan. 30 to Feb. 4 using automated phone calls and cellphone surveys. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
National polls show even more acceptance of same-sex marriage.
According to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center last spring, half of Americans supported gay marriage. And the share of Republicans and evangelical Protestants who saw gay marriage as "inevitable" rose to more than 70 percent, the Pew poll found.
Much has changed since 2004, when Kentucky voters approved the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, allowing same-sex couples who are legally married to receive federal protections. However, states that block same-sex marriage do not have to recognize same-sex couples married in another state.
Six Kentucky cities, including Lexington, have passed fairness ordinances banning discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation, and a statewide ban on such discrimination is being considered by the General Assembly, although its prospects look bleak in this year's legislative session.
Chris Hartman, director of the Kentucky Fairness Campaign, said he thinks the Bluegrass Poll numbers illustrate that advocates of gay marriage should first focus on persuading more Kentucky cities to approve fairness laws.
Such laws are easier to pass because people "do agree that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect," Hartman said.
Meanwhile, the marriage battle "will be fought and won in the court system," he said.
In Louisville, eight plaintiffs have filed a challenge in federal court to Kentucky's ban on same-sex marriage. In that case, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II will decide whether to uphold Kentucky's ban or strike it down, as federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah have recently done with similar bans in those states.
Louisville attorney Laura Landenwich, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, said she thinks the latest poll numbers reflect a shift in attitude among Kentuckians since 2004.
"It looks like we're making really good progress in terms of public opinion," she said. "It's starting to catch on that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were designed to protect the minority from oppression by the majority."
The Family Foundation of Kentucky has filed an amicus brief in the Louisville case, arguing in support of maintaining the ban on same-sex marriage.
Martin Cothran, a senior policy analyst for the group, said the Bluegrass Poll numbers don't surprise him, but he dismissed the idea that same-sex marriage will gain more acceptance in Kentucky over time.
"People get more conservative when they get older," he said.
Lack of widespread public support for same-sex marriage is why advocates turn to the court system, he said.
"Advocates of same-sex marriage have always accomplished their agenda through political court decisions, rather than taking it to the people, as we did," Cothran said.
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.