If It's Good Enough for the Supreme Court...

A research team looks into how Iowa's legalization of gay marriage in 2009 affected the views of registered voters.
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(Photo: Portokalis/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Portokalis/Shutterstock)

The same-sex-marriage battle is adding new evidence to an age-old debate: Do the courts tend to follow public opinion, or do they shape it?

“Democrats, non-religious, non-evangelical, educated, and younger respondents were more likely to change their opinions to increased support, as did those who had gay or lesbian friends and family.”

A research team led by University of Iowa political scientist Caroline Tolbert interviewed 503 registered Iowa voters just before and just after the state’s supreme court effectively legalized gay marriage in April 2009. They found that while hard-core social conservatives were unmoved by the ruling, “Democrats, non-religious, non-evangelical, educated, and younger respondents were more likely to change their opinions to increased support, as did those who had gay or lesbian friends and family.”

Writing in Political Research Quarterly, the researchers conclude that “the signaling of new social norms pressured some respondents to modify their expressed attitudes.” This suggests a positive feedback loop for same-sex marriage, in which legalization leads to increased social acceptance, and helps explain why attitudes on the issue have shifted with such remarkable rapidity.

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