Evangelical Protestant Republicans are far more likely than other groups to want courts to stay out of controversial social questions, suggesting that GOP criticism of "activist judges" resonates with the party's core constituency, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll has found.
Asked whether they trusted their state legislatures or state courts more to address the question of same-sex marriage, 69 percent of self-identified evangelical Protestant Republicans chose lawmakers. Nineteen percent backed the courts, and 11 percent said neither.
In contrast, a slim plurality of 45 percent nationwide preferred that legislatures deal with same-sex marriage, 40 percent favored the courts, and 11 percent said neither.
On the question of abortion, the country split evenly, 44 percent each for courts and state legislatures. But 66 percent of evangelical Protestant Republicans believed the issue should be left up to their state legislators, and 26 percent preferred the courts.
Separately, a poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that discontent among conservative Republicans and evangelical Protestants has fueled a significant drop in public support for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Overall, 57 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the court, down from 68 percent in Jan. 2001, the Pew poll found. Among conservative Republicans, there was a drop of 19 points, from 78 to 59 percent favorable to the court, and among evangelical Protestants, the decline was 22 points, from 73 to 51 percent favorable.
Those surveyed in the Post-ABC poll were responding to a question that sought to measure views of the courts after the Terri Schiavo case and the Massachusetts Supreme Court's decision that sanctioned same-sex marriage in that state. These disputes have concerned not only policy but also who should make policy.
Judges are currently under fire from some conservatives who say they are usurping the lawmaking role of elected representatives.
President Bush has backed federal judicial nominees who, he says, will be "strict constructionists." A nomination to the Supreme Court by Bush is possible in the near future, because Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is ill with cancer.
A total of 1,002 randomly selected adults, including 113 self-described evangelical Protestant Republicans, were interviewed by telephone between June 2 and June 5 for the Post-ABC poll. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus three percentage points.
For each of three issues -- same-sex marriage, abortion and the death penalty -- respondents were asked, "Who do you trust more to deal with the issue, your state legislature or your state courts?"
On the death penalty, GOP evangelicals had slightly more confidence in the courts but still favored legislatures by 57 percent to 40 percent. This was almost the reverse of the country as a whole, where the courts were more trusted than the legislatures by 53 percent to 40 percent.
Interviews with individual respondents showed that Republicans who describe themselves as evangelical Protestants object to what they see as the courts' denial of the public's right to make policy on "moral" issues.
"I do feel strongly. I feel we've gotten away from letting the states legislate," said Sally Poff, 58, a federal employee in Beavercreek, Ohio. On same-sex marriage, she added that "it wouldn't be right for the courts, if we voted it down in Ohio, to come and say we can't do it."
James Booher, 47, of Corryton, Tenn., said he has been concerned about the power of the courts for many years. He cited past U.S. Supreme Court rulings that established a right to abortion. "That's one that always jumps to mind," he said.
Although Republican evangelical Protestants had the least faith in the courts, Republicans generally were considerably more likely than Democrats or independents to trust legislatures.
On abortion, for example, an issue that evenly divided the nation as a whole, Republicans favored legislatures over the courts by 54 to 34 percent, while Democrats favored the courts, 48 to 39 percent, and independents favored the courts by 51 to 39 percent.
Polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.