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Two years ago, a Vanderbilt University poll showed 69 percent of Tennessee residents were either slightly or strongly opposed to allowing gay or lesbian couples the right to marry.

This year, the same poll tells a slightly different story.

The nays shrank to 46 percent. Nearly half of respondents said they favored either same-sex marriage or civil unions, according to a survey of 813 Tennessee residents.

And this is good news to same-sex couples who hope that, despite a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, gay rights will become a priority in the Volunteer State.

"I absolutely support having the same kind of legal rights than any other couple," said Lynn Hodge, a 67-year-old Chattanoogan who has been openly gay since her mid-20s. "That's the good news, that people who feel alone know that the support is there."

The survey, released Tuesday by Vanderbilt's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, asked 41 questions about a smattering of hot-button political issues, including gay rights.

Another question asked whether health insurance and other employee benefits should be extended to same-sex partners.

Sixty-two percent of those polled said yes, 31 percent said no and the remainder didn't answer or weren't sure.

Hodge said Friday she was thrilled, and depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on gay marriage in the coming months, the poll numbers may become reality for many.

"This has been going on for a long time from a lot of directions. It may look like things are changing in a short time. ... But there's been a lot of work done to bring this here," Hodge said.

Some who oppose gay marriage say the increased acceptance has come from the moral question being removed from the equation.

Bill Mason, pastor of Mars Hill Baptist Church, said he opposes same-sex marriage, but the issue has become so politically charged it's difficult to debate rationally.

"It really has become a political issue. It's not a church issue anymore; it's been taken out of that realm," Mason said.

He said opinions are changing because people are approaching same-sex marriage as a civil rights question instead of a religious or moral one.

But, he said, the pendulum of tolerance has swung in the other direction, and reasonable people who are against gay marriage are drowned out by extreme anti-gay views.

"The other problem is, people are afraid to say anything against it. ... It's a complicated issue, and I think the church has been betrayed by these hatemongers. I think it's still a sin," Mason said. "The tolerance issue has got to go both ways. And sometimes it doesn't."

Members of several religious and social groups contacted by the Times Free Press on Friday and Saturday said they were opposed to same-sex marriage but declined to comment for this article.

David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a conservative group that publicly opposes gay marriage and promotes traditional Christian marriage, did not return a phone call Friday for comment.

City Councilman Chris Anderson can speak to the apparent sea change in public perception of gay rights.

He was elected to the city's 7th District in March, becoming Chattanooga's first openly gay elected official. He's the first gay person to win a contested race in Tennessee.

"Seven years ago, the voters in this state overwhelmingly passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage," Anderson said. "There was a lot of demagoguery or bigotry around that issue seven years ago, and I think that's dissipating."

Anderson said the public acceptance of gay and lesbian couples leads more people to be willing to come out to friends and relatives. That, in turn, increases public acceptance, and the cycle continues.

"It's remarkable to see how that's changed in a relatively short amount of time," Anderson said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or Follow him on Twitter at @glbrogdoniv.