Bob Smietana, The Tennessean
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Americans who believe being gay is a sin are now a minority - a shift that a Southern Baptist-affiliated research group links to President Barack Obama's changed opinion of gay marriage.
A November survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found 37 percent of Americans polled said "yes" when asked if homosexual behavior is a sin. Forty-five percent said it was not. Seventeen percent didn't know.
That's a major change from LifeWay's September 2011 survey, when 44 percent said homosexuality was a sin, 43 percent said it wasn't and 13 percent didn't know.
The survey results, released late Thursday, didn't surprise the Rev. Cindy Andrews-Looper of Holy Trinity Community Church in Nashville, a congregation with a large number of gay members. When her church opened in the mid-1990s, most gay and lesbian members were in the closet, she said. Today, they've found more acceptance in the religious community and in the community at large.
Andrews-Looper said that being gay isn't any more sinful that being left-handed.
"Jesus didn't come into the world to condemn anyone," she said. "To use the gospel to condemn anyone is missing the point."
Americans who are most likely to believe being gay is a sin are those who attend church at least once a week or identify themselves as Evangelical.
The shift in attitudes about gay people likely cost an Evangelical minister from Atlanta the chance to pray at President Barack Obama's second inauguration. The Rev. Louie Giglio of Passion City Church in Atlanta had been asked to give the benediction. He withdrew after an anti-gay sermon that he gave surfaced on in the internet.
"Due to a message of mine that has surfaced from 15-20 years ago, it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration," Giglio said in a statement.
LifeWay's Ed Stetzer predicted more future conflicts such as that one.
"The culture is clearly shifting on homosexuality, and this creates a whole new issue: How will America deal with a minority view, strongly held by Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and so many others?" he said in a statement.
Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said that politics, culture and demographics have played a role in the growing acceptance of homosexuality. She pointed to Obama's support of gay marriage as well as gay rights victories in four state elections this past fall.
There's also the popularity of gay celebrities such as talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
"Who wouldn't want to take their grandmother to see her show?" Butler said.
Butler also sees two religious factors: Younger evangelicals are less likely to be judgmental toward gays, and many who don't claim any faith are friendly toward them.
Responses from the 1,191 people surveyed were weighted to reflect the population, the LifeWay release said. The margin of error was 2.9 percent.
The survey was released on the same day that the federal government agreed to grant $2.4 million in back pay to 181 armed service members were dismissed under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that was ended under the Obama administration.
Among the plaintiffs was Richard Collins, a former staff sergeant in the Air Force who served for nine years until he was discharged in 2006 under the policy.
"We gave all we had to our country, and just wanted the same dignity and respect for our service as any other veterans," Collins said in a statement.
Contributing: The Associated Press