Attitudes towards Gay Rights


Ben Clements

University of Leicester

January 2017

Same sex equality issues, such as civil partnerships, adoption and gay marriage, have been the subject of considerable debate in recent years as governments have passed various laws on the matter. These measures have sometimes elicited apprehension or critical responses from the leaders of various faiths and denominations as well as religiously-based campaign groups. However, the attitudes of ordinary religious adherents have changed significantly in recent decades, as the data presented here will show. This section provides a visual presentation of over-time data on gay rights issues, taken from various social surveys, looking at on the attitudes of religious groups. It uses the same set of categories for religious affiliation across social surveys: Anglican, Catholic, other Christian, and no religion.

The figures presented below are organised into the following areas:

  • general attitudes towards same-sex relations and equality;
  • attitudes towards same-sex individuals holding particular roles and occupations;
  • attitudes towards adoption by same-sex couples; and
  • attitudes towards same-sex marriage.


Same-sex relations and equality

This section presents over time data which shows religions groups more general opinions on same-sex relationships and equality. First, Figure 1 shows attitudes towards sexual relations between same sex couples, charting the proportions in each religious group who said it was ‘always wrong’ or ‘mostly wrong’ (question wordings are given underneath each figure). Figure 1 is based on a long-running question from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys.



Across three decades, there is a clear downward trend in the proportion within each group adopting a strongly disapproving view on the issue. While clear majorities disapproved in 1983 (highest at 75 per cent for Catholics and 80 per cent for other Christians; lowest at 58% for the non-affiliated), in 2013 opposition had fallen to a minority of each group: 33% of Anglicans and other Christians, 20% of Catholics, and just 13% of those with no religion.

Figure 2 presents another measure of approval or disapproval, taken from the British samples from the different waves of the European Values Study (EVS) surveys (1990, 1999 and 2008). It uses a question asking respondents to place themselves on a scale, ranging from 1 through to 10, where 1=homosexuality can never be justified and 10=homosexuality can always be justified. The mean (average) scores are shown for four groups with higher scores representing more liberal attitudes.



Across groups, attitudes towards whether homosexuality is justified or not have become more liberal over time. In 2008 the mean scores of Catholics and those of no religion were almost identical: at 5.7 and 5.8, respectively. Anglicans and other Christians had lower scores (at 5.4 and 4.9, respectively). In 1990, in contrast, the averages were lower for all groups: 3.3 for Anglicans and Catholics, 2.9 for other Christians, and highest at 3.9 for those with no affiliation.

We can therefore detect a broadly similar pattern to that shown in Figure 1, in that attitudes towards same sex relations have liberalised in recent decades, and this has occurred across religious groups.

The EVS survey has also asked whether people would be happy to have particular societal groups as neighbours. The results for same-sex individuals are shown in Figure 3. Over time there has been a clear decline in opposition to having same-sex individuals as neighbours. Between 1990 and 2008, the proportion amongst Anglicans who expressed disapproval fell from 32% to 11%. Amongst Catholics it declined from 34% to 7%; opposition fell from 37% to 11% amongst other Christians. Those with no religion affiliation also become more accepting over time, with negative opinion falling from 29% to 10%.



Questions asking about the issue of equal opportunities for same-sex individuals have featured in some of the British Election Study (BES) and BSA surveys. Specifically, the questions have asked whether equal opportunities had gone too far or not far enough. The results are shown in Figure 4a (BES) and Figure 4b (BSA). Between 1987 and 2014, based on the BES surveys, all groups registered declines in the proportions agreeing that such measures had gone too far. In 2014, around a third or less of Anglicans or Catholics thought such measures has gone too far; highest at two-fifths of other Christians. Amongst those with no religion, a fifth expressed this view. A similar picture is evident in the BSA data, covering the period 1994-2013, although in this case Anglicans are the exception in that they do not register a decline over time in the proportion thinking that such measures had gone too far. All other groups do so.




Roles and occupations

Figure 5 presents data from the BSA surveys, based on responses to three questions asking whether same-sex individuals should be allowed to hold responsible positions in public life, be allowed to teach in a college or university, and to teach in a school. Levels of opposition over time (comparing 1983 and 2012) are shown in Figure 5.



Across three decades, and for each question, there has been a marked decrease in opposition to same-sex individuals taking on these roles or occupations. Opposition in relation to holding a position in public life is very low across all groups (highest at 11% of other Christians). Opposition towards teaching roles is relatively higher – but still very low overall, both in schools and in FE and HE settings (peaking at 19% of Anglicans opposed to same-sex individuals being school teachers).


Adoption by same-sex couples

The BSA surveys have also asked about the merits of same-sex couples being able to adopt. Figure 6 presents data based on a question asking about same-sex couples adopting a child under similar conditions as other (heterosexual) couples. The data are taken from the earliest and most recent surveys when the question was asked. In 1983, opposition to such adoption was overwhelming – at around nine-in-ten of Anglicans, Catholics and other Christians, and 84% of those with no religious affiliation. Around three decades later, opposition had declined significantly, although it still amounted to 60% of Anglicans, half of Catholics, and 56% of other Christians. In comparison, 34% of those with no religious affiliation were against same-sex couples adopting.



The BSA surveys have also asked separate questions gauging support or opposition for lesbian couples and gay male couples being able to adopt a baby. Levels of opposition over time are presented in Figure 7 (lesbian couples) and Figure 8 (gay male couples). Both figures show that opposition has evidently declined over time. Opposition to gay males couples being able to adopt has generally run a little higher than for lesbian couples.




Comparing 1989 with 2007, opposition to lesbian couples being able to adopt fell from 85% to 62% amongst Anglicans, from 87% to 56% amongst Catholics, and from 88% to 58% amongst other Christians. Within the non-affiliated, it declined from 75% tom 44. A similar pattern is evident in terms of opposition to gay male couples being able to adopt a baby. The respective percentages in 1989 and 2007 were: Anglicans – 94% and 69%; Catholics – 94% and 62%; other Christians –  95% and 66%; and no religious affiliation – 87% and 51%.


Same-sex marriage

Figure 9 shows levels of disagreement with same-sex marriage across a number of BSA surveys, from 1989 to 2014. In 1989, a majority of each group was opposed to marriage for same-sex couples: lowest at 54% of those with no religion, and considerably higher amongst those with an affiliation (peaking at 81% of other Christians).clements-figures-attitudes-to-homosexuality-01-2017-f9


When the question was next asked, in 2007, opposition is much lower, across all groups. Those opposed amounted to 35% of Anglicans, 22% of Catholics, 42% of other Christians and 20% of those with no affiliation. Subsequent years show opposition declining even further amongst some groups. In 2014, around a quarter of Christians were opposed compared to just over one-in-ten of those with no affiliation.



The trends documented in the long-term survey data presented here are clear and consistent. Across different aspects of the topic of same-sex relations and equal rights, and using different questions from social survey series, there has been a marked liberalisation of opinion amongst Christians (Anglicans, Catholics and other), as well as amongst those with no affiliation. Whereas often large majorities of the religiously-affiliated used to express disapproval of same-sex relations, or disagree with the right of same-sex individuals to be able to adopt children, hold particular occupations or get married, such opinions have steadily decreased over time and more recently these views have been expressed by minorities or less emphatic majorities. On more recent evidence, those with no religion still tend to express lower levels of disapproval than do Christians, as was usually the case in the earlier surveys.


For further discussion of long-term survey data relating to this topic, looking at changing attitudes in Britain based on religious belonging, behaviour and belief, see:

Clements, B. (2015), Religion and Public Opinion in Britain: Continuity and Change. Basingstoke: Palgrave, Chapter 6.

Other BRIN posts which have covered this topic include:

BRIN readers may also be interested in developments in public attitudes in the US towards same sex relations and equality issues. Breakdowns are often provided for religious groups and religiosity:


Further reading

Brewer, P. R. (2003), ‘The Shifting Foundations of Public Opinion about Gay Rights’, Journal of Politics, 65(4), 1208–1220.

Brewer, P. R. and Wilcox, C. (2005), ‘Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Unions’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 69(4), 599–616.

Crockett, A. and Voas, D. (2003), ‘A Divergence of Views: Attitude Change and the Religious Crisis over Homosexuality’, Sociological Research Online, 8,

Hayes, B. C. (1995), ‘Religious Identification and Moral Attitudes: The British Case’, British Journal of Sociology 46(3): 457-474.

Village, A. and Francis, L. J. (2008), ‘Attitude Toward Homosexuality among Anglicans in England: the Effects of Theological Orientation and Personality’, Journal of Empirical Theology, 21(1): 68-87.

Corresponding author: Dr Ben Clements, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. For further correspondence, e-mail