Sorry, Senator DeMint: Most Americans Don't Want to Ban Gays from the Classroom

October 30, 2010, 2:31 AM GMT+0

Early this month, Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) angered gay rights organizations when he said that openly gay people (along with sexually active unmarried women) shouldn’t be teaching in the classroom. This comment was originally reported in the Spartanberg Herald-Journal and subsequently covered by a variety of national media outlets including CBS News.

The Senator justified his comments by suggesting that his beliefs are shared by many Americans. DeMint told the Herald Journal "[When I said those things] no one came to my defense. But everyone would come to me and whisper that I shouldn't back down. They don't want government purging their rights and their freedom to religion."

So is the Senator correct? Do Americans want openly gay men and women out of the classroom?

To evaluate DeMint’s claims we (Justin Phillips, Jeffrey Lax, Albert Fang, and Andrew Gelman) posed two survey questions on YouGov: (1) “Do you favor or oppose laws to protect gays and lesbians against job discrimination?”; and (2) “Do you think individuals who are openly gay or lesbian should or should not be allowed to teach in elementary schools?”

Most Americans do not share Senator DeMint’s views. Our survey shows that a large majority of respondents---66%---support the inclusion of sexual orientation in employment nondiscrimination laws (only 20% are opposed). This should not come as a surprise to anyone who follows public opinion on the issue. Indeed, Gallup polls for years have shown that most respondents support these employment protections.

Even when we ask a question that more specifically measures Senator DeMint’s claim, we find that most Americans hold the pro-gay position. In our survey, 58% of respondents think that openly gay and lesbian individuals should be allowed to work as elementary school teachers, with only 26% opposed. Responses are not particularly sensitive to question wording--if we drop the word “openly” from our survey question, support rises by only three points. (Thanks to YouGov for giving us the flexibilty to randomize our question wordings in the survey.)

While our sample was not large enough to measure the preferences of South Carolina voters on their own, we can look at the preferences of southerners. It may be the case that while a majority of Americans are fine with gays and lesbians working in the classroom, those who live below the Mason-Dixon line are not. After all, survey data has long demonstrated that the south holds the most conservative attitudes on morality issues. As it turns out, however, even a majority of southern respondents (52%) aren’t bothered by openly gay teachers.

So who is Senator DeMint speaking with in his informal survey of voter attitudes toward gays and lesbian? It appears to be Republicans. Among this group, a narrow plurality of respondents (45% to 38%) are opposed to allowing openly gay teachers in the classroom.

(By Justin Phillips, Jeffrey Lax, Albert Fang, and Andrew Gelman)