Californians are evenly divided over whether to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage, but most support allowing same-sex couples either to marry or form civil unions, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

As in the country as a whole, the idea of amending the Constitution to ban gay marriages splits Californians largely along party lines.

Overall, 47% of those polled said they favored an amendment that would legally limit marriage to unions between a man and a woman; 46% opposed it.

Among registered Republicans in California, however, 64% supported an amendment. The ratio for Democrats was almost the reverse, with 57% opposing an amendment. Several recent national surveys have found the overall electorate sharply divided, with similar partisan differences.

Although Californians closely resembled the nation as a whole on the question of a constitutional amendment, they appeared to be more willing than people elsewhere in the country to allow gay men and lesbians to receive some form of legal recognition for their relationships.

When asked which of three choices came closest to their own views, 32% of those surveyed statewide said they supported gay marriage, while 38% said they supported civil unions.

Twenty-five percent replied that same-sex couples should be permitted neither to marry nor form legal partnerships. The remaining 5% said they were unsure or refused to answer.

Nationally, by contrast, a recent poll that offered the same three choices found 45% of people saying they opposed both marriage and civil unions for gays. That poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for Newsweek magazine, found 23% supporting gay marriages and 24% supporting civil unions.

Current California law stops short of civil unions, but allows gay couples to form domestic partnerships that provide many, although not all, of the benefits received by married couples.

Regardless of their views on gay marriage itself, 57% of Californians polled believed that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had done "the wrong thing" when he recently directed officials to begin granting marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples in open defiance of state law. Every region of the state opposed the mayor's move, except the Bay Area, which was almost evenly split.

Typical of the responses of many Californians was that of William Blue, 77, from La Mesa in San Diego County.

He said in a follow-up interview that he strongly opposed Newsom's act of defiance and that he did not support the right of gays to marry. But he felt equally strongly that the issue did not warrant changing the U.S. Constitution. And he said that he felt gay male and lesbian partners deserved the same legal rights as married couples.

"In this country, eventually, people are going to approve of a legal thing for gay couples, and they should. I believe in equal rights," he said. But he quickly added, "I don't think it belongs in politics at all. It should not be a political issue in the Constitution."

The Times poll of 1,936 California residents was taken from Feb. 18 to 22, before President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage. The poll, supervised by Times polling Director Susan Pinkus, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

In addition to the partisan divide, attitudes toward gay marriage varied markedly by age and by education. Of those with college degrees, 57% opposed an amendment. Of those without college degrees, 54% supported it -- a near polar opposite. Almost four out of five college graduates supported either gay marriage or civil union. By contrast, only about two in three, or 65%, of those without college degrees did so.

Younger Californians were more inclined to support gay marriage and civil unions. The age difference did not appear on attitudes toward a constitutional amendment, however, where the even divide held fairly constant across all age groups.

But younger respondents were more likely to support gay marriage than their older counterparts. Forty-five percent of respondents 18 to 29 said they favored gay marriage, compared with 32% of those 30 to 44, 31% of those 45 to 64 and 20% of those 65 and older.

Older respondents were more likely to support civil unions, rather than marriages. But the percentage opposing both forms of legal partnership held fairly constant across the age range.

There were large age differences on the question of whether Newsom was right or wrong in San Francisco. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 53% sided with the mayor, compared with 35% of those 30 to 44, 36% of those 45 to 64, and just 22% of those 65 and older.