Most Hawaii voters remain opposed to same-sex marriage in the state but support is growing, a new Civil Beat Poll shows.

Support for civil unions, already legal in Hawaii, continues to be solid. But voters still aren’t inclined to make the political leap from civil unions to gay marriage.

The Civil Beat Poll surveyed 813 registered voters Jan. 7-9. The margin of error is 3.4 percent.

Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group which partners with Civil Beat on the polls, said there’s been a significant shift in public sentiment on the issue in the past few years.

In Hawaii, according to the recent poll, 48 percent of registered voters support civil unions while 42 percent are opposed.

On gay marriage, 50 percent oppose allowing same-sex couples to marry while 42 percent support it.

Fitch said the gay issue continues to evolve as older voters who tend to be more conservative leave the political realm and are replaced by younger voters who are widely accepting of gay issues.

“It’s an age division,” Fitch said. “It’s more accepted in younger generations and as they become the majority that will become the accepted public policy.”

Merriman River conducts polls throughout the country and Fitch says Hawaii has tended to trail other states on the gay marriage issue because voters here are generally older.

“In Hawaii more than most states, what we’ve seen is that the people who vote, the people who participate, the people who are active are older,” he said. “That’s why this issue has been a little resistant to change. The people who dominate the political discussion don’t tend to support this.”

“But,” he added, “the people who the legislators are hearing from may not be representative of the population as a whole anymore.”

The Civil Beat Poll shows that the younger the voter the greater support for civil unions and gay marriage. Gay marriage had the support of 67 percent of voters under 30, 58 percent of those ages 30 to 39 and 59 percent of those ages 40 to 49. Over 50 and support dropped to about 35 percent.

Support for civil unions followed the same trend, according to the poll.

Nine states and the District of Columbia currently allow gay marriage. In November’s elections, three states voted to approve same-sex marriage through ballot initiatives rather than implement it through legislative action or court decisions.

Civil Beat asked people in this poll who should decide the issue: Voters? The Legislature and governor? State courts? Or a federal law?

The majority — 59 percent — said it should be decided by a vote of Hawaii’s residents. Survey respondents were pretty much split on whether it should be the Legislature and governor (12 percent) or a federal law (14 percent). Very few (7 percent) want to see it decided in the courts.

Fitch said those answers reflect the public’s general dislike of having courts resolve public policy matters and a political distrust of lawmakers.

“I think a lot of people just want it resolved,” he said. “And there’s also a general lack of confidence in elected leaders. It would be unlikely that anyone would answer the question with ‘Let the Supreme Court decide.'”

Still, the numbers in support of gay marriage are moving up. Last May, Civil Beat asked voters about the issue and only 37 percent were in support. Now, it’s 42 percent.

Fitch pointed out that Hawaii has yet to have a robust political discussion on the issue of gay marriage. Generally, he said, when people talk about what bothers them about same-sex marriage opposition dwindles.

That community debate could be about to begin in earnest. Gay-marriage advocates are expected to introduce legislation this session to push the issue forward. Legal experts say the easiest way to implement same-sex marriage likely is through the Legislature, which has the constitutional authority to put it in place via statute.

The. U.S. Supreme Court is slated to hear arguments in March on challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, with a ruling expected later in the year.

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