WASHINGTON, May 31 (AP)--Just over half of Americans say gay couples should not be allowed to marry, according to an Associated Press poll. But just as many say gay partners should have some legal rights of a married couple-such as inheritance, Social Security benefits and health insurance.
More women than men feel gay marriage is OK. So do more Democrats than Republicans, more young people than old, more people who feel gays are born with that sexual orientation.
Jeanne McFarlane, a 57-year-old retiree from Plantation in south Florida, said in an interview, ``The ideal of marriage is family, and a child needs both sexes to be brought up properly.'' But she also said gay partners should get typical benefits.
The poll, conducted for the AP by ICR of Media, Pa., found that 51 percent were opposed to allowing gay couples to marry, while 34 percent approved.
Half the respondents were asked the question a bit differently - whether they approved of allowing gays to form a ``domestic partnership'' that would give them the rights and benefits of opposite-sex marriage.
In that question, which did not refer to ``gay marriage,'' the number that approved allowing such a relationship grew slightly to 41 percent while the opposition was almost half.
The AP poll found that at least half of Americans support the rights of gays to receive health insurance (53 percent), Social Security benefits (50 percent) and inheritance (56 percent) from their partners.
The governor of Vermont signed a law in April that allowed gay couples to form ``civil unions'' with the same benefits and rights as civil marriage. Vermont was the first state in the nation to pass such a law, which was separate and distinct from the state's marriage statutes.
A Vermont poll by ORC Macro of Burlington, Vt., found that about a third favored gay marriage and more than half opposed it. A national poll by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, found in 1998 that almost half opposed gay marriage, and just over four in 10 favored it. It, too, found that a majority favored providing benefits such as inheritance rights, Social Security benefits and health insurance.
After the Hawaii Supreme Court raised the possibility of state approval of same-sex marriage in 1993 - a prospect the state's voters later rejected - many states and the federal government passed laws denying recognition to such marriages.
In the AP poll, a fourth of men, compared with four in 10 women, said gay marriage should be allowed. One in five Republicans favored such marriages compared with four of 10 Democrats.
The poll of 1,012 people was taken May 17-21. Its error margin was plus or minus 3 percentage points, slightly larger for the split sample.
``There's a certain sanctity to man, woman and family,'' said Bill Allen, a 57-year-old retired chemical engineer from Elizabethtown, Ky. He often votes Republican and considers himself a moderate. Allen says gay marriage ``is an insult to the whole concept'' of marriage and family life.
Gay marriage is a new concept to most people, according to Evan Wolfson, with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization that litigates for the rights of gays and lesbians. Wolfson tracks the progress of efforts nationwide to achieve gay marriage rights.
``Vermont has now given people an example of how the sky will not fall,'' Wolfson said. ``We are looking at where we can move forward. Where the next breakthrough will come is not clear.''
The poll indicated almost a sliding scale of acceptance of gay marriage. For adults between 18 and 34, some 54 percent thought gay people should be allowed to marry, while only 14 percent of those over 65 felt that way.
``I think they eventually will have those rights,'' said Tom Wilson, a 47-year-old electrial engineer from Sacramento, Calif., who doesn't favor gay marriage.
Sentiment differed sharply among those who believe gays are born with that sexual orientation, about a third of those questioned, and those who believe they choose to live that way, almost half:
-A majority, 59 percent, of those who felt gays are born said they should be allowed to marry.
-Two thirds, 69 percent, of those who felt gays choose their orientation said they should not be allowed to marry.
For Sonia Groshong, a 47-year-old homemaker from the town of Salton near Seattle, her close acquaintance with gay people has made her more accepting of gay marriage, even though she still has reservations about it.
``My belief is that they know what they're doing and they have to live in society, too,'' Groshong said. ``They're people. Whether I feel it's wrong or not, they should be treated as people.''
The Associated Press poll on gay marriage is based on telephone interviews with 1,012 randomly selected adults from all states except Alaska and Hawaii. The interviews were conducted May 17-21 by ICR of Media, Pa.