MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Opposition to gay marriage remains stronger in Tennessee than nearly anywhere else in the country, but the state’s proposed “don’t say gay” law has little support, the latest MTSU Poll indicates.
“Though Tennesseans may be fairly characterized as extremely opposed to same-sex marriage at this point, whether and how homosexuality should be addressed in public schools is a very different matter,” said Dr. Jason Reineke, associate director of the poll at Middle Tennessee State University.
A solid 62 percent majority of Tennesseans oppose “allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally,” while 28 percent are in favor, 6 percent don’t know, and the rest decline to answer, according to the poll.
This nearly two-thirds opposition in Tennessee to legalizing gay marriage is significantly higher than the 43 percent opposition registered nationally in surveys throughout 2012 by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. It is higher even than the 56 percent opposition Pew found to be typical in 2012 of the South Central region that includes Tennessee as well as Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.
‘Don’t Say Gay’ lacks support
Somewhat paradoxically, though, a 57 percent majority oppose “a law forbidding any instruction or discussion of homosexuality in eighth grade and lower classes in Tennessee public schools,” the key provision of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill under consideration by the state Legislature. Only 31 percent support such a law, 8 percent are undecided, and the rest decline to answer.
Similarly, nearly half (49 percent) oppose “a law requiring school counselors and nurses in Tennessee’s public schools to notify parents if they believe a student has engaged in homosexual activity, but not if a student has engaged in heterosexual activity.” Only 33 percent support such a law, 14 percent are undecided, and the rest decline to answer.
There was little difference in attitudes toward “don’t say gay” based on attitudes toward gay marriage. Of those who are in favor of gay marriage, 61 percent were opposed to “don’t say gay,” while only 31 percent were in favor. Similarly, among those opposed to gay marriage, 57 percent were opposed to “don’t say gay,” while only 33 percent were in favor.
Attitudes toward parental notification regarding homosexual activity did differ significantly across attitudes toward gay marriage, though. Tennesseans opposed to legalizing gay marriage were about evenly divided on parental notification regarding homosexual activity, with 40 percent in favor and 39 percent opposed. However, among those in favor of legalizing gay marriage, 73 percent were opposed to parental notification regarding homosexual activity, while only 19 percent were in favor.
Breakdown by religious, political affiliations
Interestingly, religious and political affiliations that sharply divide Tennesseans on gay marriage tend not to produce similar divisions on the “Don’t Say Gay” measures.
On the question of gay marriage, 73 percent of the state’s self-described evangelical Christians oppose legalizing gay marriage compared to only 38 percent of those who do not identify themselves as evangelical Christians. And among evangelicals, 85 percent of Republicans are opposed compared to 73 percent of independents and only 54 percent of Democrats.
But asked about a law forbidding instruction or discussion of homosexuality in public school classes up through eighth grade, only 32 percent of evangelicals expressed support, a figure similar to the 31 percent of non-evangelicals who expressed support. Levels of support were similar among evangelicals regardless of whether they considered themselves Democrats, independents or Republicans.
Non-evangelicals are more likely than evangelicals to oppose requiring school counselors and nurses to notify parents of students’ suspected homosexual activity. But the 64 percent of nonevangelicals who are opposed and the 45 percent of evangelicals who are opposed represent the largest segments of their respective groups. In other words, both evangelicals and nonevangelicals tended to express opposition. Non-evangelicals were just more likely to do so.
“The overall opposition to provisions of the so-called ‘don’t say gay’ bill may be due to different political and religious groups opposing those provisions for different reasons,” said Reineke. “For example, non-evangelicals and Democrats may feel that the bill goes too far in discriminating against homosexuality, while evangelical Christians and Republicans may think that the bill doesn’t go far enough in its opposition to homosexuality or that the bill should require school officials to report not only homosexual but also heterosexual activity among young, unmarried students to parents.”
Poll data were collected from Feb. 11–19 via telephone interviews of 650 Tennessee adults conducted by Issues and Answers Network Inc. using balanced, random samples of Tennessee landline and cell phones. The data were weighted to match the latest available Census estimates of gender and race proportions in Tennessee.