Will a SCOTUS Ruling Shift Public Opinion on Gay Marriage?

Can a Supreme Court decision drive opinion on gay marriage?

June 18, 2014— -- Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans say that society has become more accepting in the past 10 years.

And as the nation awaits two landmark decisions -- on gay marriage and whether gay and lesbian couples should have access to federal benefits -- from the Supreme Court this month, life stands to get a lot better.

Or at least that's what LGBT couples overwhelmingly think will be the case in the coming years, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. But that doesn't mean that life as a gay American is all good right now.

In fact, about 40 percent of LGBT people have been rejected by a family member or a friend at some point. And more than 15 percent say they have been the subject of slurs or jokes in the past 12 months.

The fact that it's still a somewhat hostile world is reflected in the people who continue to be especially nervous about the reception they will receive from loved ones when they reveal their sexual orientation. More than a third of LGBT adults have not told their moms about their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 39 percent haven't told their dads.

And even though more Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage than 10 years ago, we still live in a country where more than 40 percent of the American public thinks gays and lesbians should not be allowed to marry, according to Pew.

That brings us back to a pair of rulings set to come down this month. Even if the court rules in favor of gay marriage or overturns the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, public opinion won't automatically follow suit. Long term, though, it could bolster an already shifting public opinion.

"I think a decision by the Supreme Court declaring Section three of DOMA to be unconstitutional would help the continuing trend of increased acceptance of LGBT people," Professor Art Leonard of New York Law School wrote in an email, "even though there may be a short-term rise in anti-gay 'acting out' by opponents or those enflamed by angry rhetoric from opponents."

So if the court rules broadly and gay marriage is legalized, for example, anti-gay activists may become even more fervent in opposing gay marriage.

As New York University Law Professor Barry Friedman said during a March radio appearance, "[T]here is something ironic that happens, which is that when the Supreme Court decides a case, the people who agree with it tend to nod and go back about their business. It's the people who are shocked by the decision or outraged by the decision that tend to mobilize in the political arena. We saw that after Roe v. Wade when the right organized and really led the country into a period of much more conservative politics."

But Leonard doesn't think the upcoming court rulings will draw the same reaction. He noted that most of the states likely to pass amendments against same-sex marriage already have them in place, so any backlash is unlikely to do legislative damage.

Canadian-born immigration lawyer Lavi Soloway said he's not too worried about possible repercussions either.

Soloway co-founded The DOMA Project to draw attention to the plight of binational LGBT families, and he says things have gotten better in recent years as Americans have met gay neighbors and lesbian co-workers.

Well-known figures like Ellen DeGeneres are also "very influential" in conveying the fact that LGBT couples and families do the same things as opposite-sex families, he said.

So a court decision will certainly change things, and potentially in a very big way, but when it comes to what Americans actually think about the LGBT community, what nine justices hold to be true is less likely to have a decided impact on public opinion now than people simply interacting with neighbors and friends who happen to be LGBT.