Four decades ago, the gay rights movement burst onto the scene in the Stonewall riots of Greenwich Village.  As we near year’s end in 2009, we close the fourth decade of gay rights activism and the first decade of the twenty-first century.  You’ve come a long way, baby.

A handful of states now offer marriage equality, either through court decree or legislative fiat.  A handful more allow civil unions.  The Matthew Shepherd bill extended hate crimes protection to sexual orientation.  “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” in the military is likely to be phased out soon.

Several branches of Judaism and several of Christianity allow gay clergy and blessings of same-gender unions.  This summer, the Episcopal church opened the episcopate to gays, and a lesbian bishop was elected in California just a week ago.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) became the largest religious denomination anywhere in the world to allow gay clergy in committed relationships and to allow blessing of same-gender unions.  Their Swedish counterpart, the Lutheran Church of Sweden, also elected a lesbian bishop this year.

But the battles rage on.  The worldwide Anglican communion and its leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, are harshly critical of their American communion partner, the Episcopal church.  A dissident group of Lutherans called Lutheran Core is making a lot of noise and siphoning off members, congregations and especially funds from the ELCA.  Gay rights is both a secular and a religious issue, and religious organizations have played major roles in the outcomes of public ballot initiatives in California in 2008 (Mormon) and Maine in 2009 (Catholic), which narrowly rejected marriage equality.

As the year comes to a close, the focus shifts to New Jersey where a marriage equality bill is moving through the legislature.  A new public opinion poll in that state offers fascinating insight into the overlap of the religious and the secular (hat tip to Irish blogger Terence Weldon for first posting about this poll overnight).  The poll was conducted by Rutgers University, and is posted on the University’s media relations site.

Despite opposition from the Catholic Church, New Jersey Catholics generally support legalizing gay marriage, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released today. Among Catholics, 48 percent support gay marriage, while 40 percent oppose and 12 percent are undecided. Protestants hold the opposite view, with only 34 percent supporting and 55 percent opposing gay marriage; 11 percent are undecided. Jewish respondents support gay marriage, 56 percent to 40 percent, with 4 percent undecided, while those with no religion preference are the most supportive, at 85 percent to only 10 percent opposed (5 percent undecided).

The Protestant numbers are skewed a bit by lumping evangelicals and non-evangelicals together.  The evangelicals are strongly negative, but the main line Protestant numbers approximate the favorable figures for both Catholics and Jews (47% favorable, 37% unfavorable).  Equally interesting is the finding that none of the religious groups, including the evangelicals, consider this issue to be of major importance.

“While the issue matters to a very small but passionate group on both sides, by far, most New Jerseyans of all stripes think there are more critical issues that need to be addressed,” Redlawsk said. “This suggests that regardless how a legislator votes, at the next election, this vote will be far less important to potential re-election than most other issues the Legislature will deal with.