Support for civil partnerships for gay couples is rising in America – but gay marriage is still a contentious issue.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 57 per cent of the 4,000 people surveyed think gay couples should be able to have their unions legally recognised through civil partnerships. In 2003, a survey by the same centre found that only 45 per cent were in favour.

However, only 39 per cent said they supported gay marriage.

Of those who favoured marriage for same-sex couples, 45 per cent said campaigners should push as hard as possible to gain the right. However, 42 per cent said that pushing too hard could create a backlash against gays and lesbians.

The survey also asked about attitudes to homosexuality. It found that almost half (49 per cent) of respondents felt that homosexuality was morally wrong. Only nine per cent said it was morally acceptable, while 35 per cent said it was not a moral issue.

Black people were most likely to think homosexuality was morally wrong (64 per cent), compared with white people (48 per cent) and Hispanics (43 per cent).

Among religious groups, 76 per cent of white evangelical Protestants and 65 per cent of black Protestants believed homosexuality is morally wrong; mainline Protestants (40 per cent), Catholics (39 per cent) and the unaffiliated (29 per cent) were much less likely to take this view.

Views also differed markedly by level of worship service attendance. Overall, two-thirds of those who attend services at least weekly said homosexual behaviour is morally wrong, compared with 43 per cent of those who attend services monthly or yearly and 31 per cent of those who seldom or never attend.

As with many such surveys, greatest support for gay marriage and civil partnerships was found among young people, women and those with no religious affiliation.

Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed said gays and lesbians face “a lot of discrimination”.

Fifty-eight per cent agreed that Muslims face the same level of discrimination and 52 per cent said the same for Hispanics.