People are similarly conflicted over what, if anything, the government should do about the issue.
Support for legal recognition of same-sex marriage has shifted in recent years, from a narrow majority opposed in 2009 to narrow majority support now. Some of the shift stems from a generational divide, with the new poll showing a majority of Americans under age 65 in favor of legal recognition for same-sex marriages, and a majority of seniors opposed.
In some places, government has moved ahead while the nation debates. New York in July became the sixth state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize same-sex marriage. Still, the issue played a part in the special election Tuesday to replace disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y. Democrat David Weprin's support for gay marriage cost him support among the district's Orthodox Jews, and he lost to Republican Bob Turner.
Also Tuesday, lawmakers in North Carolina, the only state in the Southeast that does not have language in its constitution banning gay marriage, voted to put the question on the 2012 ballot. Most Americans who live in states where gay marriage is not already legal say it is unlikely their state will pass such a law; just 20 percent think it is likely to become law in their state.
Americans also are conflicted on how to go about legalizing or outlawing gay marriage.
One option is banning gay marriage by constitutional amendment. About half of the poll's respondents, 48 percent, said they would favor such an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Most who feel this way do so intensely. About 40 percent would strongly favor such a change. Forty-three percent said they would oppose such an amendment, and 8 percent were neutral, according to the poll.
Most — 55 percent — believe the issue should be handled at the state level, however, and opinions on how states should act are split. People are about evenly divided on whether their states should allow same-sex marriages — 42 percent favor that and 45 percent are opposed — and tilt in favor of state laws that allow gay couples to form civil unions — 47 percent in favor, 38 percent opposed and 13 percent neutral, according to the poll.
"The different moral standards in different areas, probably, are the biggest reason that same-sex marriages are an issue," said Dale Shoemaker, 54, a military retiree from Boise, Idaho. If gay couples who want to get married live in a state that doesn't allow it, they can move to one that does, he said.
Either way, gay couples "should have benefits," Shoemaker said. "If they're living together and cohabitating and are a couple, (they should have) the insurance and retirement and that type of thing, the monetary benefits."
Nearly 6 in 10 (57 percent) in the poll shared Shoemaker's take when it comes to government benefits. They said same-sex couples should be entitled to the same legal benefits as married couples of the opposite sex. Forty percent felt the government should distinguish between them.
The poll did uncover some inequities. It suggests, for example, that opponents of same-sex marriage were far more apt to say that the issue is one of deep importance to them. Forty-four percent of those polled called it extremely or very important for them personally. Among those who favor legal marriage for gay couples, 32 percent viewed the issue as that important.
Von Aspern is an example of an American whose opposition to gay marriage is deep and abiding. It's based on her religion — she is Mormon — and as such it overrode other considerations when it came to her daughter's wedding.
"It was very difficult," Von Aspern says. "We had to bring them to the house and hug them and love them and tell them these things and not let that keep us apart."