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Gay-Friendly Churches And Houses Of Worship Growing, According To National Congregations Study

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Brendan Hoffman via Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman via Getty Images

Nearly half of houses of worship in the United States now allow gay and lesbian members who are in long-term relationships to be members, while close to one in three now let gay and lesbian members hold voluntary leadership posts, according to a new study of more than a thousand American congregations.

The statistics, which represent a sharp uptick in acceptance of gay and lesbians in religious communities, are part of Duke University's latest National Congregations Study, which was previewed this week and will be released in full early next year.

"Compared to our study in 2006-2007, there's been a ten percent increase among congregations that say gays and lesbians in committed relationships can be full-fledged members," said Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology at Duke University who led the study. "Last time we asked these questions, it was 38 percent of congregations that let gays and lesbians be full members."

In a similar pattern, the number of congregations that allow gay and lesbian members in long-term relationships to hold voluntary leadership positions has also increased from the 19 percentage that held the such a position in Chaves' 2006-2007 study.

In the latest study, about 17 percent of congregations said they had openly gay and lesbian members. Open gay and lesbian members were more prevalent in larger congregations. Overall, 31 percent of congregation members were part of communities with openly gay and lesbian people.

The 2012 National Congregations Study, which surveyed a representative sample of 1,331 congregations, was previewed at this week's meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Boston. The survey was last conducted in 2006-2007, when it looked at a sample of 2,740 U.S. congregations. Researchers first conducted the survey in 1998.

In addition to changes in attitudes toward gays and lesbians, the the latest survey results also showed shifts taking place in the ethnic and racial makeup of congregations, worship style and use of technology, prevalence of female leadership and congregational size and distribution.

Regarding race and ethnicity, the percentage of houses of worship with only non-Hispanic membership is now 11 percent, while it was 20 percent in 1998. Meanwhile, 57 percent of congregations reported in the most recent survey that more than four in five of their members were non-Hispanic whites. That's down from 66 percent in 2006-2007 and almost 75 percent in 1998. About 44 percent of congregations have black families among their membership.

Congregations have also increased their use of technology in worship and communication. Forty percent reported that they have Facebook pages, and more congregations are using non-traditional types of worship, such as Pentecostal and charismatic-style jumping, shouting and dancing during worship. About a quarter of congregations are also now not part of any national denomination.

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