You are here: Home / Mood Poll / Poll Report: Americans Divided on Wedding Services Conflicts

Poll Report: Americans Divided on Wedding Services Conflicts

The Mood of the Nation Poll examines the role of businesses in serving same-sex couples ahead of Supreme Court hearing on Colorado bakery case.

Nov 30, 2017

Michael Nelson, Michael Berkman, and Eric Plutzer
November 30, 2017

Over the last several years, the battle for same-sex rights has moved away from the alter and into businesses nationwide. Even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that the U.S. Constitution requires states to recognize same-sex marriages, some business owners—including bakers, florists, photographers, and venue owners—questioned whether they must provide services for same-sex weddings when they have religious or moral objections to such unions.

On December 5, all eyes will be on the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court as they hear oral arguments in a Colorado case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. That case arose when Jack Phillips declined to design and create a cake for David Mullins and Charlie Craig’s upcoming marriage. The couple then brought a complaint before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled that the Masterpiece Cakeshop violated Colorado’s antidiscrimination law.

Mr. Phillips argues that baking a cake is an artistic act, and the government cannot compel him to create certain types of art because of his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

We addressed a slice of this controversy in a recent McCourtney Mood of the Nation poll.  We asked a representative sample of 1,000 Americans whether they believed that small business owners should be required to provide services to same-sex couples, or if they can refuse services to same-sex couples if same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.

The results of the poll show a nation almost evenly divided on this question:

Partisanship and Religion

As in many issues dividing the country, the key factors dividing Americans’ views on this controversy are partisanship and religion. 

Among Democrats, 73% said that business owners must provide wedding related services to same-sex couples, while that view was held by only 24% of Republicans.

In terms of religion, we see major divisions within many faith traditions. For example Catholics (49-51), those attending Mainline Protestant churches (44-56), and Black Protestant churches (57-43) are all nearly evenly divided.  In contrast, among Americans affiliating with doctrinally conservative Protestant churches – 80% feel the shop owner should be able to refuse services.

Why? Citizens Explain in Their Own Words

After providing an answer, each respondent was to explain it, in their own words.  Among those siding with shop owner, answers fell into several broad categories.

Some, about one in ten, used the space to discuss their own moral objection to homosexuality, telling us was “disgusting,” “an abomination,” and “against everything in the good book.”

About two in ten raised the religious rights of the shop owner as their main reason. As a Democrat from Ohio put it, “No one should be forced to participate in something that violates their religious beliefs.”

Free Markets, Free Speech

However, the large majority of those siding with the shop owner did not mention religion or morality at all.  Most emphasized shop owners’ freedom to refuse service to whomever they wish (freedom).  For example, a Hispanic woman from Florida told us “We are free to serve whom we want to serve and refuse whom we want to refuse this is a free country.

Indeed a large number of citizens told us that they supported gay rights, felt the shop owner was doing the wrong thing, but nevertheless felt that market freedoms were the most important aspect of the situation.  A Republican from New York put it this way, “If they want to turn away business that is their right. I think it's stupid, but should be up to them.”

Others focused on the idea that someone might be forced to do things by the government or by groups they disagree with.

Many also felt that the harm to the same-sex couple was minimal because they had many options for finding suitable services from shop owners happy to have the business.

Interestingly, among the 1,000 participants in the poll, only one raised the argument being advanced by Colorado baker Jack Phillips – that this is not a case of free market rights, or religious rights, or equal rights; rather, that as a “cake artist” he enjoys First Amendment protections from government actions that restrict his free expression of ideas.

Everyday Morality and Kindness

On the other side of the debate, about one in ten supporters of the gay couple explained their reason in terms of human decency without reference to laws and rights. They told us that providing service was “just human decency,” “it’s the right thing to do,” or “they should get over it and be happy that two people found each other.”

Another one in ten directly addressed the prejudice they inferred in the hypothetical shop owner, with explanations like “same sex couples are people too,” “they are human too,” or “we are all God’s children.”

Discrimination and Equal Rights

A clear majority – more than 60% – saw any denial of service as discrimination.  Citizens from nearly every state and political orientation explained with answer like “discrimination of any form is wrong,” that “it's wrong to discriminate based on sexual orientation,” or “Equal rights for everyone means everyone. Not just the people we accept.”

Quite a few respondents made direct connections to earlier periods in U.S.  history when it was legal and acceptable to discriminate on the basis of race or gender or religion.  A white Independent from Georgia said, “Replace same sex couples with black couples...that's all you need to know.”  And an Iowa Independent explained that this case is, “no different tha[n] a business refusing to service customers based on the color of their skin or religion. Its an inherently anti-American idea.”

Many amplified their answer by expressing slippery slope concerns, wondering “if they get to pick and choose where will it stop?” and “If they are allowed to discriminate against one group how do we know it won't be against another?

Quite a few also saw the operation of small business as part of the social contract. A Democrat from Washington state asserted, “If small business owners want to be a part of a community, they must be willing to provide their services to any member of that community, it can't be a one way exchange.”

Among all of those seeing the dispute through the lens of discrimination, few expressed sympathy for the view that the extension of equal rights placed a substantial burden on those with particular religious views.  One woman from Georgia was blunt in this regard:

they're allowed to not approve of something but they should provide the services, especially if it's something like medical or pharmatiecial. doctors don't have a choice, neither do attorneys. a florist can suck it up and deliver flowers to a gay wedding”

Interestingly, many poll respondents felt that the requirement to serve same sex couples is now the law of the land and required by the Constitution.  An Independent from Florida said, “Though I am against homosexuality, I think its unconstitutional to deny service based on that.”

Of course, this is precisely what is uncertain – and the December 5th oral arguments will provide the first glimpse into how the nine justices of the Supreme Court will view the issue.  The justices will no doubt consider highly technical aspects of Constitutional Law.  But we expect that they will also grapple with many of the same concerns that are on the minds of ordinary American citizens.

Like the participants in our Mood of the Nation Poll, the justices will have to weigh the relative importance of individual freedoms, the rights of all Americans to be treated equally, and how to reach a solution when core American values appear to be in conflict.=

The Big Decision

Of course, this is precisely what is uncertain – and the December 5th oral arguments will provide the first glimpse into how the nine justices of the Supreme Court will view the issue.  The justices will no doubt consider highly technical aspects of Constitutional Law.  But we expect that they will also grapple with many of the same concerns that are on the minds of ordinary American citizens.

Like the participants in our Mood of the Nation Poll, the justices will have to weigh the relative importance of individual freedoms, the rights of all Americans to be treated equally, and how to reach a solution when core American values appear to be in conflict.

 About This Poll

This poll was conducted from August 21-25, 2017 by YouGov in partnership with the Penn State McCourtney Institute of Democracy.

Core questions asked in every Mood of the Nation Poll can be viewed here

Supplemental questions reported in this report are as follows:

August supplemental Q2 (four versions are assigned randomly to respondents):

Which of the following statements comes closest to your own view?  Please select the answer that comes closest to your opinion, even if none of the choices are perfect.

Version A:

  • Small business owners should be allowed to refuse services to same-sex couples if same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.
  • Small business owners should be required to provide services to same-sex couples.

Version B:

  • Small business owners who provide wedding-related services should be allowed to refuse services to same-sex couples if same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.
  • Small business owners should be required to provide services to same-sex couples.

Version C:

  • Small business owners should be allowed to refuse services to same-sex couples if same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.
  • Small business owners should be required to provide services to same-sex couples as they would to all other customers.

Version D:

  • Small business owners who provide wedding-related services should be allowed to refuse services to same-sex couples if same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.
  • Small business owners should be required to provide services to same-sex couples as they would to all other customers.

After providing an answer, each respondent saw a new screen which reminded them of their answer and asked them to explain it, in their own words:

  • You said that small business owners should (be allowed to refuse services to same-sex couples) / (be required to provide services to same-sex couples)  Can you explain why?