Next Tuesday, the Supreme Court will begin to hear oral arguments for and against the legality same-sex marriage nationwide. Public opinion on same-sex marriage has changed dramatically since 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. Nationally, support for same-sex marriage stood at 32 percent twelve years ago; today 54 percent of the public favors allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.
As public opinion has changed, 37 states have taken action to make same-sex marriage legal, although they opted for different approaches. Eleven states legalized same-sex marriage via referenda or through state legislative action, while 26 did so as the result of court decisions. Thirteen states do not currently recognize same-sex marriage. And, as it turns out, attitudes about same-sex marriage are very different in each of these three groups.
Support for same-sex marriage is highest in states where it became legal through the passage of referenda or legislative enactment. Sixty-two percent of residents in these states favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. In states where the courts legalized same-sex marriage, public views (55 percent) mirror support among the general public (54 percent). As one might expect, opposition is highest in the 13 states where same-sex marriage remains illegal.
There is also a seven-percentage point gap in support between states that legalized same-sex marriage through courts and through referenda or state legislature—55 percent versus 62 percent, respectively.
Out of all the states that legalized same-sex marriage via the courts, Massachusetts and Connecticut, the first two states to permanently allow it, stand out as being among the most supportive of same-sex marriage. Seventy-three percent and 67 percent of Massachusetts and Connecticut residents, respectively, favor same-sex marriage.
A handful of states’ public opinion directly conflicts with same-sex marriage’s local legal status. Of the 13 states where same-sex marriage is illegal, three states—Ohio (53 percent), Nebraska (54 percent) and Michigan (55 percent)—have majority support. Two of these states, Ohio and Michigan, are within the conservative Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which upheld state bans on same-sex marriage. And four states with legalized same-sex marriage—Alabama* (32 percent), West Virginia (37 percent), South Carolina (39 percent), and Wyoming (41 percent)—show minority support. In all of these states, courts—not the legislature—enacted same-sex marriage.
For more, explore the interactive American Values Atlas.
For more public opinion on same-sex marriage, see PRRI’s “Everything You Need to Know about Same-sex Marriage for the Upcoming SCOTUS Case.”
* In March 2015, the Alabama Supreme Court ordered the state’s probate judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.