WASHINGTON (AP) -- For the first time, most Americans expect public servants to issue marriage licenses to gay couples even over religious objections, a new AP-GfK poll has found, in the latest shift in public opinion over gay rights.
The topic has been a matter of national debate since the Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage nationwide in June. Passions flared over the summer when a county clerk in the state of Kentucky, Kim Davis, refused to issue licenses to gay couples and served jail time for defying a court order that she do so.
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.
The AP-GfK poll found that 56 percent of respondents believe public officials should be required to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, while 41 percent said officials with religious objections should be exempt. That's a shift from July when just 47 percent of respondents said public officials should be required to issue the licenses and 49 percent favored an exemption.
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 U.S. presidential contenders. But it's not a new conflict for a nation that has long wrestled with the separation of church and state.
The shift of opinion on the issue 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.
Public opinion has favored same-sex marriage in recent years and some politicians -- President Barack Obama, 2016 presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton and some members of Congress among them -- have come around to that view.
The cultural change has influenced the governing bodies of some of the most conservative religions, including the Catholic Church under Pope Francis and the Mormon Church, which last week called for compromises between protecting religious liberties and prohibiting discrimination. Both institutions are trying to accommodate society's shifting views while keeping a firm grip internally on their own doctrines against gay marriage and homosexual activity. And both churches steered clear of the appearance of backing Davis. The Vatican said the pope's brief meeting with her in Washington should not be construed as a sign of support.
More generally, the poll offers evidence that Americans remain slightly more likely to say that it's more important for the government to protect religious liberties than the rights of gays and lesbians when the two come into conflict, 51 percent to 45 percent. But that, too, is a slight shift since July, when 56 percent said it's more important to protect religious liberties.
The AP-GfK Poll of 1,027 adults was conducted online Oct. 15 to Oct. 19, using a sample drawn from GfK's probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.
Respondents were first selected randomly using telephone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.
Poll results: http://ap-gfkpoll