(CBS News) As the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in two high-profile cases this week - California's Proposition 8 and the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act - 60 percent of Americans think the federal government should legally recognize existing same-sex marriages and provide them the same federal benefits the government provides to heterosexual married couples. Just 35 percent do not think the government should do this.
The legality of same-sex marriage varies by state. When it comes to who should decide this issue, most Americans- 62 percent - think the decision should be left up to each individual state government, while just 26 percent think it should be up to the federal government.
Meanwhile, a slight majority of Americans (53 percent) thinks it should be legal for same-sex couples to marry.
Although public opinion on this topic has been consistent for the last few months, it has changed markedly from as recently as a year ago. In May 2012, just after President Barack Obama announced his support for same sex marriage, 51 percent of Americans said it should not be legal for same-sex couples to marry.
The poll further suggests the extent to which people's views have changed. 33 percent of Americans who now think same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry say they once held the opposite view.
Same-Sex Relations: Right or Wrong?
General views on being gay or lesbian have evolved over the years as well. Now, just 36 percent of Americans think same-sex relations between consenting adults is wrong, and most - 57 percent - think it is not. When Gallup asked a similar question in 1978 - whether homosexual relations between consenting adults were wrong - six in 10 Americans said they were.
As with same-sex marriage, there are differences by age: Americans over 65 tend to think same-sex relations are wrong, while people under 65 do not. Sixty-nine percent of those who have a work colleague, close friend, or relative who is gay or lesbian do not believe homosexual relations between consenting adults are wrong, while 56 percent of those who do not have a close relationship with anyone who is gay or lesbian think such relations are wrong.
Is Being Gay or Lesbian a Choice?
Similarly, just a third of Americans now think being gay or lesbian is something people choose to be; instead, 53 percent think it is something people cannot change. Twenty years ago, Americans were divided when they were asked whether being homosexual was a choice or not.
Most Americans who think same-sex relations are wrong believe being gay or lesbian is a choice. Those who do not think same-sex relations are wrong think being gay or lesbian is something people cannot change.
Gay Membership in the Boy Scouts
Although it may reconsider its policy this coming May, currently the Boy Scouts of America does not allow openly gay members in its ranks. Fifty-one percent of Americans, however, think the Boy Scouts should allow openly gay members; just 36 percent think they should not.
Sixty-four percent of 18 to 29 year-olds think the Boy Scouts should allow openly gay members. That figure drops with age, to 45 percent of people age 45 or over. Women (56 percent) are more apt than men (46 percent) to favor allowing this as well. Fifty-four percent of parents with children under 18 say the Boy Scouts should allow openly gay members.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court will be making decisions on two important cases involving same-sex marriage. In general, 44 percent of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing, while 38 percent disapprove.
In deciding important constitutional cases, Americans are divided as to whether or not the Supreme Court should only consider the legal issues involved (46 percent), or whether it should also consider what the majority of the public thinks on the subject (45 percent).
This poll was conducted by telephone from March 20-24, 2013 among 1,181 adults nationwide. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.