(CNN) – A new national poll suggests that a majority of Americans oppose legalizing same sex marriages - but there's a vast generational divide on the issue.
Fifty-four percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Monday say that marriages between gay or lesbian couples should not be recognized as valid, with 44 percent suggests they should be considered legal.
Among those 18 to 34 years old, 58 percent said same-sex marriages should be legal. That number drops to 42 percent among respondents 35 to 49 years old, and to 41 percent for those 50 to 64 years of age. The poll indicates that only 24 percent of Americans 65 and older support recognizing same-sex marriages as valid.
While a majority of those polled oppose legalizing gay marriage, 6 out of 10 feel that states that do not recognize gay marriages 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 law makers that makes gay and lesbian marriages legal takes effect in the state later this year. Lawmakers in Maine and New Hampshire 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. "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 up 17 points from 1992. Fifty-eight percent of those ages 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 some of the 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 join them. Possibly on a hot button social issue," says CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider.
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 Bill 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 3 percentage points.