WASHINGTON – A name like Maria or Jose isn't a solid clue anymore that the person who answers to it will worship in a Catholic church on Sundays.
An Associated Press-Univision poll finds that younger Latinos, as well as those who speak more English than Spanish, are much less likely to identify as Catholics than older Hispanics who mostly speak Spanish.
The poll of 1,500 Latino adults also found significant divisions on social issues such as same-sex unions and abortion, along lines of age, language and whether one is Catholic or Protestant.
It's been more than a year since Melissa Solis went to Mass. An executive assistant at a New York financial firm, she was raised by a pious Catholic mother but calls herself "nonpracticing."
"There is peace in the house of God for me, but there is also inner peace," said Solis, 35. "I do believe there is a God, and that has helped me through tough times. But you can practice your religion in your home, and it doesn't necessarily have to be in a building labeled the 'house of God.'"
Overall, 62 percent of Hispanics identify as Catholic, but that includes only 55 percent of young adults 18 to 29, compared with 80 percent of elders 65 and over.
Catholicism is the primary religion in the ancestral countries of U.S. Latinos. Spanish missionaries brought the faith to what is now Florida and the American Southwest more than 400 years ago. But in the United States these days, religious sentiment seems to be keener among Latino Protestants than their Catholic counterparts.
Protestants are twice as likely to attend weekly services, according to the poll, also sponsored by The Nielsen Company and Stanford University. Many worship in evangelical or Pentecostal churches.
They tend to be more conservative than Catholics on matters of religious doctrine and social morality.
Seventy percent of Hispanic Protestants said the Bible is the actual word of God, to be taken literally, compared with 46 percent of Hispanic Catholics. Just 26 percent of Protestants said abortion should be mostly legal, compared with 41 percent of Catholics. And 59 percent of Protestants said same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry, compared with 29 percent of Catholics.
"What does it mean to be a Latino Catholic?" asked Robert P. Jones, founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, a Washington think tank. "How does one move from religious belief to public policy? Among Catholics it's a much more complex process. While it takes into account scripture and church teachings, it also brings in reason and experience as authoritative sources."
Lindsay Dusenbery, 27, of Columbia, Md., said she gradually came to accept same-sex unions, even though Catholic bishops are staunchly opposed. Working as a preschool teacher, she met a lesbian couple and their rambunctious son.
"As much as I had thought it would mess up our social order, it doesn't seem like anything different now," said Dusenbery, who is of Panamanian and Nicaraguan heritage.
The lesbian couple "reminded me so much of what a normal couple would be like," she added. Their son "was just a normal two-year-old, running around and going crazy."
But Jose Ramos, 70, of La Puente, Calif., doesn't see how same-sex unions can work. "If the parents are two women, who are the children going to call daddy?" asked the retired truck driver. "If it's two men, who are the children going to call mommy? That business seems very difficult to me."
The poll found a large generation gap on same-sex marriage, with 46 percent of Hispanics ages 18 to 29 saying same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, compared with less than one-third of those in older age groups.
Same-sex marriage seems to be gaining acceptance in Latin America. Last month, Argentina became the first South American nation to allow it. Gay marriage is also legal in Mexico City, while same-sex civil unions granting are allowed in Uruguay and in some states in Mexico and Brazil.
On another divisive issue, the poll found markedly less support for legal abortion among Latinos than among Americans overall. Thirty-nine percent of Hispanics said abortion should be mostly legal, compared with 51 percent of the general population in a 2009 AP-GfK poll.
But there are big disagreements among Latinos. Forty-nine percent of those who speak mainly English said abortion should be legal in most cases, about the same as the proportion of the general U.S. population holding a similar view. Hispanics who mainly speak Spanish were far more conservative, with only 31 percent saying abortion should be mostly legal.
"That's taking somebody's life away," said Martha De Leon, 26, a stay-at-home mother of three from Mercedes, Texas. "That's taking away the life of a child." She attends a Pentecostal church three times a week.
The AP-Univision poll was conducted from March 11 to June 3 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Using a sample of households provided by The Nielsen Company, 1,521 Hispanics were interviewed in English and Spanish, mostly by mail but also by telephone and the Internet. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Stanford University's participation in the study was made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Associated Press writer Ileana Morales and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.