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Steve Helber, Associated Press
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Gay marriage debate is changing how Americans settle differences

As the courts, state lawmakers and the general public move toward accepting and legalizing same-sex marriage, another historic shift is taking place away from trying to balance the interests between a minority of religious objectors and the majority of Americans, according to two conservative commentators.

A Washington Post/ABC poll released this week found a record-high 59 percent of Americans say they support same-sex marriage, while 50 percent said gay men and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.

"In a Post-ABC poll in March 2004, 38 percent said same-sex marriage should be legal, while 59 percent said it should not, the same percentage now in favor of allowing gays to marry," the Post reported.

That "dramatic shift in public opinion, and a series of legal victories, seem to be melting the resistance of the Republican Party — and prompting conservatives to find new ways of framing the question," wrote Fox News media analyst Howard Kurtz.

Among them is New York Times columnist Ross Douthat who conceded that gay marriage will soon be legalized throughout the United States, but wondered how that will affect "a substantial minority of Americans, most of them religious, still committed to the older view of marriage."

He said one possibility is that this minority will fade into the background, allowed to practice their belief with legal protections for the few individuals and businesses that believe accommodating a gay marriage violates their religious beliefs.

The nation has a history of carving out exemptions for religious objectors to military service, vaccinations, union dues, school curriculum, abortion — to name a few.

But Douthat and other observers note that the recent veto of a bill in Arizona that would have created such protections in instances of accommodating same-sex marriages signaled those days of giving space to those who don't want to follow the majority may be over.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, described the action taken in Arizona as "a major shift in terms of the negotiation of liberties in our society."

"What we're talking about here is something entirely new in human history," Mohler said, according to a report in the Baptist Press. "In other words, the demand of people that their erotic and romantic activities, their orientations and relationships be sanctioned is now in our society on the ascent. It is now considered dominant even when it runs into collision with one of the most basic freedoms the United States was founded upon, and that is religious liberty."

But Douthat, who in a column last summer urged religious conservatives to start negotiating a surrender in the gay marriage battle or risk walking away with no protections, said his fellow Christians had it coming to them.

"Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places)," he wrote. "So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com Twitter: @deseretbrown