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Nearly half of LGBTQ adults are religious, U.S. study finds

This is considerably lower than the general U.S. population, where more than two-thirds say they are religious.
Participants from St Lucas Lutheran Church during Toledo
Members of St. Lucas Lutheran Church participate in Toledo Pride in Toledo, Ohio, on Aug. 18, 2018.Chirag Wakaskar / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Almost half of LGBTQ adults in the United States are religious, according to a recent report from the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.

Of nearly 16,000 respondents polled in the Gallup Daily Tracking Survey, 47 percent were either moderately or highly religious. Those who were older, Black or lived in the South were the most likely to be religious, researchers found.

To determine religiosity, respondents were asked about service attendance and the importance of religion in their daily lives.

Respondents who said religion was not an important part of their daily life and they never or seldom attended services were categorized as “not religious.” Those who indicated religion was important — even if they attended services less than once a month — were classified as “moderately religious,” as were those who attended services weekly, even if they said religion was not important in their lives.

Respondents who said religion was an important facet of their daily life and they attended regular services were categorized as “highly religious.”

By that metric, 27 percent were classified as moderately religious, 20 percent as highly religious and just over half (53 percent) as not religious.

According to the authors of the report, the 5.3 million religious LGBTQ adults in America “are found across the age spectrum, in every racial-ethnic group, among married and single people, among those who are parenting, and among rural and urban dwellers.”

Still, certain patterns emerged, particularly among generations.

Only 38.5 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and about 40 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds were religious. That compares to more than half (51 percent) of those 35 to 49 who could be classified as religious and 56 percent of those 50 to 64.

Religiosity was highest among people 64 and older: Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) were moderately or highly religious.

That surprised lead author Kerith J. Conron, research director at the Williams Institute, considering how unwelcoming most churches have been toward LGBTQ people historically.

“Their faith must have been pretty strong when they were younger and coming out and there were even fewer accepting places,” she said. “It persisted despite discrimination and rejection.”

She predicts those numbers will decline drastically in future years.

“My hypothesis is that fewer and fewer people in young adulthood are choosing religion. It’s a pattern we see in non-LGBT people, as well,” Conron said. “People are consciously deciding to step away from the religion of their youth because it doesn’t embrace their values.”

Even straight Americans have cited their church’s treatment of the gay community as part of the reason they’ve left, she added.

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center analysis, 26 percent of Americans identify as agnostic, atheist or “nothing in particular,” up from 17 percent just a decade earlier.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York’s LGBTQ synagogue, said the barriers gay people face when participating in their faith have only started to fall.

“There’s been progress, but I deal with people all the time from liberal religious families who have faced horrible bigotry and rejection,” she said.

But, she added, the hunger for spirituality is deep among gay people — perhaps even deeper than among the larger population.

“Everyone has that desire for meaning or purpose, but for LGBT people, it’s right there on the surface,” Kleinbaum told NBC News. “Anyone who goes through the process of discovering a deeper truth about themselves, especially if it’s at odds with the larger world, understands a sense of revelation, of deeper truth. It’s our going to Mount Sinai.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the LGBTQ-affirming New Ways Ministry, agreed.

“LGBTQ people have many spiritual gifts which can renew religious institutions, if these groups would just perform the simple and holy acts of welcoming and listening,” DeBernardo said.

The vast majority of religious LGBTQ Americans are Christian — split fairly evenly among Catholics (25 percent), Protestants (28 percent) and other Christian denominations (24.5 percent). Only about 2.5 percent identify as Jewish and 2 percent as Muslim.

But the percentage of gay Americans who identify as part of any faith tradition is still considerably lower than in the general population, of which 67 percent is religious, according to a 2017 Gallup analysis.

Even LGBTQ Black Americans, the most likely demographic to be religious (over 70 percent), still lag behind Black people in the general population: More than 82 percent are religious.

“The reason there has been such tension between LGBTQ people and institutional religious groups has not been because LGBTQ people are not religious,” DeBernardo said, “but because faith groups have vilified them and excluded them.” Working on inclusion in the Catholic Church, he said, “I have seen an enormous number of LGBTQ people whose faith and religious identity are so strong that they continue to push for acceptance even against mammoth walls of opposition.”

Whether it’s too late for churches and synagogues to attract gay parishioners remains to be seen. But if there’s any hope, Kleinbaum said, “We have to go beyond tolerance.”

“We need to say, ‘This is who God created,’ and celebrate them.”

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