BY PETER HECHT, Sacramento Bee
Signaling a generational shift in attitudes, a new Field Poll on Tuesday said California voters now support legal marriage between same-sex couples and oppose a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
By 51 to 42 percent, state voters believe gay couples have the right to marry, according to a May 17-26 poll of 1,052 registered voters.
However, the same poll revealed a California electorate that remains sharply divided over gay marriage – split by age, political affiliation, religion and the regions where they live.
The poll was taken after the May 15 California Supreme Court decision overturning a state ban on same-sex marriages. The results marked the first time in more than 30 years of state polling that a majority of Field Poll respondents favored making gay marriage legal.
In 2000, more than 61 percent of voters approved Proposition 22, a statute declaring that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid in California.
The state Supreme Court ruling overturned Proposition 22. Opponents of gay marriage have circulated an initiative likely to appear on the Nov. 4 ballot that would amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage – negating the court decision.
Based on the Field Poll, the ultimate outcome of the gay marriage issue in California could hinge on the age of the electorate.
Reflecting stark differences in generational attitudes, 68 percent of voters between 18 and 29 years old said they favored allowing same-sex couples to marry. Fifty-eight percent of voters 30 to 39 and 51 percent of voters 40-49 favored gay marriage. That compared with 47 percent of voters 50-64 and 36 percent of those over 65 who supported the idea.
"As young people are replacing older people, voters are more supportive," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Field Poll. "The trend line itself is historic. The lines are crossing. This is a major sociological event in California."
The results weren't a surprise to Kari Bodine, 34, a Field Poll respondent from Sacramento County who is raising two children with her female partner.
"I don't need polling data to tell me that I am getting a different attitude these days," said Bodine, who with her partner got a marriage license in San Francisco before the state Supreme Court ruling. "I'm president of my daughter's school PTA. Everybody knows. And nobody questions me."
Another poll respondent, Richard Roberts, 89, said his attitudes have evolved. But like the majority of voters over 65, Roberts – a retired banking executive who lives in Lincoln Hills – said he is adamantly against legalizing same-sex marriage.
"I think gay people have rights as couples in terms of health care and insurance from an employer," Roberts said. "But as far as actual marriage goes, I don't believe in that."
Roberts said he is surprised himself that he now supports domestic partnerships – an option short of marriage – for gay couples. "I can recall when I was 55, I was totally against it," he said. "If you had asked me the same question then, I would have said they shouldn't have any rights."
In another Field Poll two years ago, state voters opposed gay marriage, 51 to 43 percent. DiCamillo said the recent shift may reflect both the presence of newer voters and a reaction to the state high court ruling.
"We had this historic ruling of the state Supreme Court, and people may have been persuaded," DiCamillo said. "We do see a shift. It looks like something happened to affect opinion."
The Field Poll asked two groups of voters differently worded questions on whether they would support a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Voters asked about "barring marriage between gay and lesbian couples" opposed a constitutional ban, 54 to 40 percent. Voters asked whether they favored or opposed "having the state constitution prohibit same-sex marriage," also opposed the ban, 51 to 43 percent.
Gay marriage was strongly opposed by inland California residents. Central Valley voters disapproved of same-sex marriage 55 to 38 percent.
Support surged on the coast, with Bay Area voters supporting gay marriage by 68 to 24 percent, and Los Angeles County voters supporting it by 55 to 38 percent.
While Democrats overwhelmingly supported gay marriage and Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it, there was also a significant religious split.
Born-again Christians objected to gay marriage, 68 to 24 percent. Protestants were opposed, 57 to 34 percent. Catholics were nearly evenly split. Voters from other religious groups favored gay marriage, 61 to 33 percent. Eighty-one percent of people with no religious preferences supported gay marriage.
"There are huge, substantial differences – whether you live in the Central Valley or on the coast, whether you're Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Protestant or no religious affiliation," DiCamillo said. "It's a divisive issue."
While Field Poll respondent Donald Lewison, a retired probation officer in Sacramento County, doesn't object to civil unions, he said he is unbending on the word "marriage."
"I guess it's religious convictions," Lewison said. "I think marriage is just for a man and a woman, and anything beyond that is stretching the boundaries of my beliefs."
Placer County resident and poll respondent Patrick Donnelly, 52, said he has become more accepting of gay marriage and doesn't believe gay couples should be treated differently under the law than heterosexuals.
"California is changing fast as a state, and this change doesn't really surprise me," Donnelly said. "Almost no change surprises me anymore here."