Sixty four percent of Americans say moral values will be very important to their vote in the upcoming presidential election, and the debate over stem cell research is shaping up as an issue that could help Democrats, according to a new poll.

A majority of voters (52 percent) now says conducting stem cell research is more important than protecting embryos, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. That is up from 42 percent expressing that view in March 2002.

Another issue with moral trappings, meanwhile, gay marriage, ranks near the bottom of issues that voters say are important to them this year.

While 60 percent oppose allowing homosexuals to marry legally, only one in three (34 percent) says gay marriage will be a very important factor in their vote. About as many (30 percent) say it will not be a factor at all.

Gay marriage could still be a galvanizing issue for at least one voting segment, however. Among white evangelicals who attend church weekly, about 17 percent of registered voters, two-thirds (67 percent) view gay marriage as very important in this election. Those voters rank the issue as high as the economy, higher than Iraq and a step below terrorism. Support drops off quickly, to 28 percent, for white evangelicals who attend less frequently.

Even among those who oppose gay marriage, only a third (32 percent) support amending the Constitution to ban it.

A near majority (49 percent) of Americans, meanwhile, favor legal agreements allowing homosexuals many of the same rights as marriage.

The survey found public awareness of the debate over stem cell research has increased significantly over the last two years. About a quarter of Americans (27 percent) said in March 2002 had heard a lot about the issue. Today that number is four in 10 (42 percent.)

Support for stem cell research is strongest among those who are most informed about the issue. Americans who have heard a lot about stem cell research support it 63 percent to 28 percent.

In other findings, Americans tend to view the Republican Party as more friendly to religion (52 percent) than the Democratic Party (42 percent), though neither party is seen as particularly unfriendly to religion.

Partisans of both sides view their party as more friendly to religion, but Republicans feel so more strongly. Seven in 10 Republicans say the GOP is friendly to religion, while only 27 percent say the same about Democrats. Half of Democrats say their party is friendly toward religion, but 45 percent say the same about Republicans.

Among African-Americans, traditionally a strong voting base for Democrats, half (51 percent) see the Democratic Party as friendly toward religion. Just 28 percent of African-Americans say the Republican Party is friendly toward religion, and three in 10 say the GOP is unfriendly toward religion.

Nearly three quarters of registered voters (72 percent) say it is important to them that the president has strong religious beliefs.

Most Americans say George W. Bush relies on his own religious beliefs in policymaking, but just 15 percent say he relies on his beliefs too much. John Kerry is viewed as a less religiously motivated candidate. Nearly half (46 percent) say Kerry’s faith will not influence his policies much at all.

About as many people say there is too little reference to religion in political rhetoric (31 percent) as those who say there is too much (27 percent.) Those who feel there should be more religious talk favor Bush (61 percent), while those who want less prefer Kerry (63 percent). But about half say both Bush and Kerry mention their faith about the right amount.

While Americans value belief in their leaders, they are less comfortable with mingling church and politics.

Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) say it is improper for political parties to ask for church rosters for voter registration drives, while 26 percent say it is proper.

Half say churches should express their views on political matters, but nearly two thirds (65 percent) say churches and other houses of worship should not endorse candidates.

Sixty-four percent said it is improper for Catholic leaders to deny Communion to politicians whose policies go against church teachings, and 72 percent say it is proper to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

The economy, terrorism, health care, Iraq and education are the issues that voters say are most important to them this year. Abortion and gay marriage are the least important issues both to those certain to cast their ballots for Kerry and for swing voters who haven’t made up their minds.

Certain Bush voters rank moral values second, behind terrorism and ahead of Iraq, followed by the economy, education, abortion, health care, gay marriage, energy, the environment and the budget deficit.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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