CLAYTON FLECKENSTEIN
Brian Branch Price  /  AP
Richard Clayton III, left, kisses his partner, Ron Fleckenstein Jr., after filing an application for a marriage license in Asbury Park, N.J. on Tuesday. At right is Clayton's sister, Brenda, who acted as a witness.
msnbc.com
updated 3/12/2004 4:06:11 PM ET 2004-03-12T21:06:11

The heated debate over gay marriage is strengthening public support for legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples, with a majority of Americans now in favor of such formal recognition, according to two polls released Wednesday.

Reflecting what appears to be a search for middle ground on the issue, both the Washington Post-ABC News poll and the USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed a significant shift in public opinion on civil unions in recent months.

The latter survey found 54 percent of respondents favor civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, with 42 percent opposing them. In a poll conducted in July by the same organizations, 57 percent opposed civil unions and 40 percent favored them.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 51 percent of respondents favor allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions with the same basic legal rights as married couples, up 6 percentage points in less than a month.

Deep divisions remain on gay marriage
But both surveys also reflected deep divisions on same-sex marriage.

The Post-ABC News survey found that 59 percent of Americans oppose gay marriage – up 4 percentage points from February. But the same poll found that 53 percent took issue with President Bush’s call for a constitutional amendment outlawing the full legal recognition of same-sex couples.

Instead, the poll found that a slim majority –- 53 percent -– favors allowing the states to determine whether to issue same-sex wedding license.

The margin of error of the survey of 1,202 randomly selected adults, which was conducted March 4-7, was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found a slight softening of opposition to gay marriages, with 61 percent rejecting such unions, down 3 percent from a survey three weeks earlier.

Support for constitutional ban weakens
It also indicated that support for a constitutional ban was weakening slightly, with 50 percent supporting that approach, compared to 53 percent in the February survey. Opposition to a constitutional amendment inched higher over the period, rising from 44 percent to 45 percent, according to the survey.

At the same time, the poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say that local officials should be forced to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to the survey of 1,005 Americans conducted March 5-7. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent on most questions.

Debate over the issue has moved to the forefront in the months since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that gay marriage would become legal in the state on May 17.

Local officials in California, Oregon, New York and New Jersey have added to the controversy by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, in many cases in defiance of state laws banning such unions.

Bush said last month that he supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, injecting the matter squarely into the presidential race.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has said he is opposed to gay marriage but favors allowing states to determine their own course.

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