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For the past 36 years, there has been a Field Poll asking Californians how they feel about same-sex marriage.  The first Field Poll on this issue was conducted in 1977 and showed that only 28% of people polled favored same-sex marriages.  The latest version was conducted for two weeks from 834 registered voters throughout the state.  According to an article published by the Associated Press, the current poll documented the largest percentage of popular support of all subsequent polls: 61% of Californians are in favor of gay marriage.

The latest results had the following breakdown:

  • 61% overall support
  • 78% support for respondents under the age of 40
  • 56% support for middle aged respondents
  • 48% support among senior citizens

Interestingly, support comes from all sub-groups.  Same-sex marriage was favored by men and women, all social and ethnic groups and throughout state regions.  There was even 39% support from respondents who defined themselves as Republicans and 25% approval from non-affiliated conservatives.

The poll results appear at a very opportune time.  The United States Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case determining the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriages in 2008.  For those unfamiliar with the history of same-sex marriage in California, the timeline below offers a brief outline:

1996:  Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed defining marriage between man and woman

1996-2008:  California applies DOMA, banning same sex marriage

JUNE 2008:  California becomes second state to allow same-sex marriages (Massachusetts first state in 2004) after the California Supreme Court finds the ban is illegal to the California State Constitution

NOV 2008:  First election following the State Supreme Court decision has the ballot initiative Proposition 8, seeking to once again ban same-sex marriage.  Proposition 8 passes by a slim majority (52%)

AUG 2010:  Federal district court case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger rules that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional

FEB 2012: Perry v. Schwarzenegger appealed to the 9th District Court of Appeals as Perry v. Brown. The court affirms the District Court decision

JULY 2012: Perry v. Brown appealed to the United States Supreme Court as Hollingsworth v. Perry.

DEC 2012: Hollingsworth v. Perry granted review by the United States Supreme Court.  Arguments to begin in early 2013.

The history of same sex marriage and the recent poll results demonstrate a paradox.  How can Proposition 8 pass with popular vote if 61% support same-sex marriage?  There are multiple possible answers.  It could be that those who participated in the poll, while registered voters, did not vote regarding Prop 8.  Or, those in favor of Prop 8 rigorously campaigned and effectively increased favorable voter participation and those voters were not in the population that took the poll.  It is even possible that recent public education and advocacy efforts have changed the minds of California voters between 2008 and 2012.

Whatever the reason, popular opinion will be taking a back seat to judicial determination.  As the Supreme Court is allowed to be persuaded by popular trends and changes in social acceptance, their ultimate job is to see if equal protection is being violated with California’s usage of Proposition 8.  However, it is important not to take the issue lightly, as the decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry will have implications for the entire nation, not just California.