Poll: The majority of Americans think clerks must issue gay marriage licenses

Kim Davis

Kim Davis AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File

In this Sept. 14, 2015, file photo, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis makes a statement to the media at the front door of the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Ky. For the first time, most Americans expect government officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even over religious objections, an Associated Press-GfK poll has found. Last summer, Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File

In this Sept. 14, 2015, file photo, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis makes a statement to the media at the front door of the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Ky. For the first time, most Americans expect government officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even over religious objections, an Associated Press-GfK poll has found. Last summer, Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

WASHINGTON — Linda Massey opposes gay marriage. But she was incensed last summer to see that Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk, was refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

“If the government says you have to give out those marriage licenses, and you get paid to do it, you do it,” says the 64-year-old retiree from Lewiston, Michigan. “That woman,” she said of Davis, “should be out of a job.”

Americans like Massey are at the heart of a shift in public opinion, an Associated Press-GfK poll has found. For the first time, most Americans expect government officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even over religious objections.

It’s partly a matter of expecting public servants to do their jobs. But more broadly, the issue touches on a familiar dispute over which constitutional value trumps which: religious freedom, or equality under the law?

The question in recent months has entangled leaders with political sway, among them Pope Francis and the 2016 presidential contenders. But it’s not a new conflict for a nation that has long wrestled with the separation of church and state.

Where Davis’s answer was the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom — and she served jail time to back it up — a majority of respondents don’t buy that argument when it comes to public officials issuing marriage licenses. That’s a shift since an AP-GfK survey in July, when Americans were about evenly split. Then, 49 percent said officials with religious objections should be exempt from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and 47 percent said they should be required to issue them.

Now, just 41 percent favor an exemption and 56 percent think they should be required to issue the licenses.

That shift was especially stark among Republicans. A majority of them —58 percent — still favor religious exemptions for officials issuing marriage licenses, but that’s down 14 points since 72 percent said so in July.

The timing of the surveys is important, coming during rapid developments in the politics of gay rights and religious freedom.

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