WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A new national poll suggests a majority of Americans oppose legalizing same-sex marriages, but the survey indicates a vast generational divide on the issue.
The recent poll shows that those who have a gay friend or relative are more likely to support gay marriage.
Fifty-four percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Monday say marriages between gay or lesbian couples should not be recognized as valid, with 44 percent suggesting they should be considered legal.
But among those 18 to 34 years old, 58 percent said same-sex marriages should be legal. That number drops to 42 percent among respondents aged 35 to 49, and to 41 percent for those aged 50 to 64. Only 24 percent of Americans 65 and older support recognizing same-sex marriages, according to the poll.
While a majority of those polled oppose legalizing gay marriage, six of ten said states that do not recognize gay marriages should allow civil unions. When it comes to supporting civil unions, the poll indicates a similar generational shift.
Three states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa -- currently allow same-sex marriages. A law passed by Vermont legislators that makes gay and lesbian marriages legal takes affect in September. New Hampshire lawmakers are close to passing a similar bill.
"It's not surprising that three Northeastern states are the first to take this step," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland, referring to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont. "A majority of people who live in the Northeast say they approve of same-sex marriage. Solid majorities in the South, Midwest and West all oppose gay marriage."
Forty-nine percent of those questioned say they have a family member or close friend who is gay. That's up eight points from 1998 and 17 points from 1992. Fifty-eight percent of those aged 18 to 34 say they have a family member or close friend who's gay. That drops to just one in three of people 65 or older.
"People who say they have a gay friend or relative support same-sex marriage," Holland notes. "Most of those who say they don't know anyone who is gay, oppose gay marriage."
The poll's release comes just three days after Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced he would step down from the high court after this year's session ends in late June. Any Supreme Court nomination battle between conservatives and progressives will most likely include hot-button social issues, like gay marriage.
"Republicans don't have the votes to defeat President Obama's choice for the Supreme Court. They have to get some Democrats to join them, possibly on a hot-button social issue," says Bill Schneider, CNN senior political analyst.
The poll indicates that close to 40 percent of Democrats oppose legalizing gay marriage. But Schneider says there's a risk for conservatives if they make same-sex marriage an issue in the fight over a Supreme Court nomination.
"Young voters strongly favor marriage equality. They're the future of American politics," says Schneider.
The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was conducted April 23-26, with 2,019 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points
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