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Poll cites more support for civil unions

WASHINGTON -- Public support appears to be growing for legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples, as well as for allowing states to make their own laws regulating homosexual marriage, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

About half of those polled -- 51 percent -- favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to form civil unions with the same basic legal rights of married couples, up six percentage points in less than a month. A slightly larger majority also rejected amending the US Constitution to ban same-sex marriages in favor of allowing states to make their own laws, an eight-point increase in recent weeks.

But it's too early to draw firm conclusions from these results. Polling on homosexual marriage has been particularly volatile. For example, support for giving states the right to decide on who can and cannot get married stood at 58 percent in January, dipped to 45 percent in February, and now stands at 53 percent in the latest Post-ABC News poll.

The survey comes as the controversy over same-sex unions continues to build across the nation. In California, Oregon, New York, and New Jersey, local officials have issued marriage licenses in the past month to gay and lesbian couples. President Bush has come out in support of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, casting the issue into the middle of the 2004 presidential campaign. Roughly 6 in 10 Americans polled oppose same-sex marriage, up four percentage points from last month.

However, the survey suggests that Bush's endorsement of a constitutional ban is far from popular. Overall, 52 percent of those polled said they disapproved of the way Bush was handling the issue of same-sex marriage, while 44 percent approved. And when asked which candidate would better handle the issue, those surveyed divided evenly between Bush and Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

Bush could reap some political benefits from his endorsement. The survey suggests that the issue is more of a voting concern for opponents of same-sex marriage than for its advocates. Those opposed to gay marriage are more than twice as likely as supporters to say they could not vote for a candidate who did not share their view on this issue. Overall, slightly more than a third of those polled say same-sex marriage is important in deciding which presidential candidate to support this year, the least important of a dozen issues tested in the latest Post-ABC News poll, including the economy, health care, and the war on terrorism.

A total of 1,202 randomly selected adults were interviewed March 4-7 for this survey. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll comes after some supporters of same-sex marriage have expressed fears that the issue was moving too quickly. The sight of same-sex couples kissing on the courthouse steps would prompt a public backlash that would block even modest changes in the legal status of same-sex couples, they feared.

The survey found deep divisions along and even within partisan lines over exactly what rights, if any, to extend to same-sex couples. About 6 in 10 Democrats and independents surveyed support allowing civil unions for homosexual couples, while an equally large majority of Republicans polled oppose it.

Six in 10 Democrats and independents surveyed oppose a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, while nearly as large a proportion of Republicans polled favor an amendment.

Meanwhile, in Michigan yesterday, lawmakers blocked a measure that would have allowed voters to decide this fall whether to change the state constitution to ban gay marriages. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted 65 to 38 for the resolution, leaving its supporters short of the 73 votes or two-thirds majority needed to send it to the Michigan Senate.

Information from Reuters was included in this report.

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