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Majority in Mass. poll oppose gay marriage

Survey also finds civil union support

A majority of Massachusetts residents said they oppose legalizing gay marriage, a significant increase since the state's highest court ruled three months ago that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry, according to a new Boston Globe poll.

The poll also found that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed wanted the voters, not the courts or the Legislature, to define marriage in Massachusetts, through a statewide ballot question to amend the constitution. And it indicated significant support for civil unions.

The survey, taken by phone Wednesday and Thursday, indicated opposition to gay marriage has jumped 10 percentage points since a Globe survey done just days after the Supreme Judicial Court's Nov. 18 ruling legalizing gay marriages.

Then, 48 percent polled supported legalizing gay marriages, while 43 percent were opposed. In the recent poll, 35 percent supported legalizing gay marriage and 53 percent were opposed; the survey of 400 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.

The survey indicated deep divisions over what course the state should take on the question of the legal status of gay unions. None of the three proposed amendments to the constitution that lawmakers are considering to define marriage won a majority of support from the poll respondents.

The 10-point increase in opposition to legalizing gay marriage came after a strong campaign by the Catholic Church and other opponents, who have denounced the SJC ruling and lobbied for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Among Catholics, the percentage of those who oppose gay marriage increased from 47 to 66 percent.

"There has clearly been a backlash against the court ruling," said Gerry Chervinsky, the president of KRC Communications Research of Newton, which conducted the poll.

Chervinsky said the poll reflects a strong public ambivalence over the emotionally charged issue. "People clearly want to take a step back and assess all the available options before anything is finalized," he said.

The poll was taken a week after the Legislature held a chaotic, two-day constitutional convention that failed to resolve the raging debate of whether to put a constitutional definition of marriage on the ballot.

The lawmakers rejected three proposed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage; two of the three also would have created some form of civil unions for gay couples.

Lawmakers are set to reconvene March 11. The poll results reflect the politically treacherous territory they face as they decide whether to take steps toward overturning the decision that would make Massachusetts the first state to make gay marriage legal. The SJC decision is set to take effect May 17.

The survey indicated deep splits among the population based on age, party affiliation, gender, and religious affiliation. Male respondents opposed legalizing gay marriage more than women did; Republicans strongly opposed it, while Democrats were statistically split.

A majority of respondents over 40 opposed gay marriage, while about 45 percent of those under 40 favored it. Catholics firmly opposed legalizing gay marriage, while 47 percent of Protestants opposed it and 38 percent supported it.

Sixty percent of those polled last week backed the creation of civil unions for gay couples, while 31 percent were opposed. In November, the Globe asked people if they "think gay and lesbian unions and partnerships should or should not be allowed by law." In that survey, 67 percent supported them and 23 percent were against.

Since the Nov. 18 ruling, top Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans have tried to fashion civil unions legislation that would offer some benefits to same-sex couples, but not marriage. Gay marriage supporters say that civil unions would not offer many benefits beyond the state's borders, nor offer equal treatment to gays.

The poll indicated the SJC's ruling has lost support among the public and the court's reputation has suffered. Asked whether they agree with the Nov. 18 opinion, 52 percent said no and 37 percent said yes. The earlier poll found 50 percent agreeing with the decision by the justices, while 38 percent disagreed.

The public view of the court itself declined, with 34 percent rating it favorably, 31 percent unfavorably. In November, the Globe survey found 43 percent viewed the SJC favorably, 26 percent unfavorably.

With the Legislature yet to find a consensus over how to handle gay marriage, 71 percent of people questioned said the issue should be decided by the voters in a statewide referendum, while 20 percent opposed putting the issue on the ballot. A majority -- 57 percent -- expressed a desire to have several options presented to voters.

"It doesn't belong in the courts," said Mary Cram of Dennis, one of the 400 who was surveyed. "It's too important and the people should decide. That is the fairest way."

Cram, a practicing Baptist who has been married 50 years, said she is a "traditionalist" but she also would like some form of a civil union system created for same-sex couples.

"My faith has always told me that marriage is between a man and woman," Cram said. "I wish there was some way that rights could be granted without getting into the marriage issue." She supports amending the state constitution to restrict marriage to heterosexuals.

None of the options that have been before the House and Senate, as they meet as a constitutional convention, won a majority in the Globe poll. An amendment that would restrict marriage to heterosexuals was supported by 45 percent of those surveyed, while 47 percent opposed it. That amendment, offered by state Representative Philip Travis, a Democrat from Rehoboth, stated that "nothing in this article requires or prohibits civil unions," but did not establish those unions, define them, or explicitly give the Legislature the ability to create them.

Those polled opposed, by 49 percent to 36 percent, a compromise amendment that would restrict marriages to heterosexuals, but also mandate the creation of a civil union system for same-sex couples, with all the benefits and protections of marriage. That measure was offered by Senate President Robert E. Travaglini and Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees.

Kathy Bock-Hasek of Burlington said she would prefer to see same-sex marriages legalized, but would settle for a strong civil union system as a compromise.

"Just because it goes against the so-called norm, they [gay couples] are being punished for it," said Bock-Hasek, an interior landscaper. "But I have a feeling with the way the public views this, there has to be a compromise. Civil unions are better than nothing. It gives them something."

An amendment that would define marriage as a heterosexual institution and establish a civil union system, but leave it to the Legislature to define what benefits civil unions provide, drew only 30 percent support in the poll. Fifty-five percent were opposed. That amendment has the backing of many allies of House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, a strong opponent of gay marriage and civil unions in the past, and Governor Mitt Romney.

Among the Beacon Hill leaders who played prominent roles in the debate that drew media from around the world, Finneran seems to have fared the best with the public. The controversial Democratic speaker was viewed favorably by 30 percent of those surveyed, and unfavorably by 23 percent. That is a major turnaround from November, when only 19 percent of those polled gave him favorable ratings and 31 percent unfavorable ratings. Travaglini's ratings remained much the same, with 18 percent viewing him favorably, 12 percent unfavorable.

Romney, who has spoken forcefully against gay marriage and civil unions, also saw his popularity rise, though less dramatically. In last week's poll, 48 percent rated him favorably, 30 percent unfavorably, while in the November survey, he received a 44 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable rating.

But the governor's higher standing may not have been affected by the debate on gay marriage. The poll indicated 37 percent disapproved of the way he handled the issue, and 31 percent approved.

The Legislature, which is often the target of public disapproval, particularly when it is in turmoil over as controversial an issue as gay marriage, had a 28 percent favorable, 23 unfavorable rating among those surveyed. And again, the lawmakers did not help themselves during the recent gay marriage debate, with 47 percent of those polled saying they disapproved of its performance, 26 percent saying they approved.

Most respondents, 67 percent, were also unaware of how each of their legislators voted during the constitutional convention, while 30 percent said they were aware. The lawmakers face reelection this fall.

The survey also indicated that the public considers the gay marriage issue far less pressing than several other issues, all of them related to economic problems. Asked what are the important issues facing the state today, 7 percent cited gay marriages and civil unions, while 18 percent chose the economy; 18 percent, health care and health insurance; 14 percent, unemployment; 11 percent, education; and 8 percent, taxes.

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