Half of Kentucky voters oppose gays and lesbians being allowed to marry in Kentucky, but opposition has softened since February when a federal judge began striking down the state's same-sex marriage ban, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
Fifty percent of respondents told pollsters this month they oppose same-sex marriage in Kentucky, with 37 percent favoring it and 12 percent not sure.
A Bluegrass Poll in February showed 55 percent opposed, 35 percent in favor and 10 percent not sure.
In 2004, nearly 75 percent of Kentucky voters amended the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman and to prohibit recognition of valid same-sex marriages or civil unions from outside the state.
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People on both sides of the debate agree on one reason for the shift: Over the last year, federal judges around the country — including U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II in Louisville — have been overturning state bans on same-sex marriage, calling them unconstitutional violations of gays and lesbians' civil rights.
Kentucky will defend its ban — still in effect — next Wednesday before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Two groups of same-sex couples are suing Gov. Steve Beshear for the marriage rights that heterosexual Kentuckians enjoy.
"Now there is a public discussion, now there are faces to put to this issue," said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group in Louisville. "Kentuckians see these love stories and realize they're just as much about the desire to create a family as their own love stories."
Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst with the Family Foundation of Kentucky, said there also is a pro-tolerance message about homosexuality aggressively promoted by the entertainment industry, news media and academia. Families see same-sex weddings shown positively on television shows such as ABC's Modern Family, making the defense of traditional marriage seem less popular, Cothran said.
But Cothran, whose group lobbied for the 2004 marriage amendment, predicted a populist backlash if federal courts order Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriage.
"Look at what happened with the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade," Cothran said. "The Supreme Court stepped into an issue that was unsettled in most states and made what many saw as an ad hoc, political decision to settle it. That really hardened the opposition and created a permanent division on the subject. People think that sort of judicial fiat is unfair if it's not reflecting the will of the people."
The Bluegrass Poll of 714 registered Kentucky voters was sponsored by the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and the Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. It was conducted by SurveyUSA from July 18 through July 23 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Terry Thacker, 66, of Lexington said he always will consider marriage to be between one man and one woman.
"Things may be changing and opening up, but I hold steadfast in my Christian beliefs," said Thacker, a poll participant who agreed to be interviewed later by the Herald-Leader. "Unfortunately, there is a segment of the community that keeps pushing for acceptance from the rest of us. I would say, 'Quit trying to shove something down my throat that I don't want.' That really creates a lot of animosity in folks who didn't have any to start."
Another poll participant, Harlan "Ed" Hunley, said he supports any adult's right to marry because it's none of his business.
"This is America," said Hunley, 70, of Pulaski County. "They pay taxes like I do, they should have the same rights that I do. Everyone is supposed to have the freedom to pursue happiness. Anyway, I think the heterosexuals, we're the ones who have made a mess out of marriage."
Opposition to same-sex marriage was strongest among conservatives (77 percent), people age 65 and older (65 percent), those with a high school education or less (62 percent) and residents of rural areas, particularly Eastern Kentucky (64 percent). Support was highest among college graduates (44 percent), people age 18 to 34 (49 percent), liberals (67 percent) and residents of urban areas, such as Louisville and surrounding areas (46 percent).
"The other side has been losing ground on this issue, especially when you look at the young," said Hartman of the Fairness Campaign.
In 2012, Republican campaign pollster Jan van Lohuizen — who has worked for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and former President George W. Bush — studied his national data and concluded that support for same-sex marriage was growing "at an accelerated rate of speed with no sign of slowing down." In particular, van Lohuizen told his clients in a memo, "younger people" across the political spectrum are comfortable with gay marriage.
Given these "recent developments on the issue," the GOP pollster advised his clients to recast their public positions on same-sex marriage.
One possible statement that he suggested: "As people who promote personal responsibility, family values, commitment and stability, and emphasize freedom and limited government, we have to recognize that freedom means freedom for everyone. This includes the freedom to decide how you live and to enter into relationships of your choosing, the freedom to live without excessive interference of the regulatory force of government."
In this year's U.S. Senate race, McConnell has called himself a "traditionalist" who opposes same-sex marriage and is critical of Heyburn's judicial rulings against Kentucky's marriage ban. Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has expressed support for same-sex marriage, noting that she and her husband have been married for seven years.
"I want to make sure all individuals have that same opportunity," Grimes told the Herald-Leader in November.