A clear majority of Americans support civil unions for gay and lesbian couples but most continue to oppose marriage.

According to a new poll released Friday by the Pew Research Center, support for civil unions has reached a new high with 57% of those responding saying gay couples should have the right to enter into a union, even as support for gay marriage appears to have stalled out.

Opposition to gay unions has dropped significantly over the past six years, from 47% in 2003 to 37% today.

Yet, support for gay marriage has remained stubbornly stuck in the high 30's since 2003. The new poll shows a majority of Americans (53%) oppose gay marriage, a figure that has remained nearly fixed over the past 12 months despite a three-fold increase in the number of states legalizing the institution during the same time.

Opposition to gay marriage is strongest among white evangelical Protestants (77%) and black Protestants (66%). Catholics are nearly evenly divided on the issue, with 45% favoring and 43% opposing.

Political groups at both extremes of the spectrum are equally fervent in their support for or opposition to marriage between people of the same sex. Eighty-one percent of self-identified conservative Republicans oppose gay marriage, while seventy-two percent of liberal Democrats favor it.

A large majority (64%) of Americans say gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination, more than any other group.

Pew researchers questioned more than 4,000 people by telephone in August for the poll, which has a plus or minus 2 percent error rate.