When Vermont Gov. Howard Dean delivered an impassioned speech April 26, 2000, on why he was signing a civil unions law (search) granting marriage rights to gay couples, he never mentioned religion as a reason.

Now, as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination and tries to connect with voters for whom religion is an important part of their values, Dean has said that his faith was one of the reasons he signed the law.

"The hallmark of Christianity (search) is to reach out to people who have been left behind," Dean told reporters Tuesday night. "So there was a religious aspect to my support of cis at a group of people who have been outcasts for many, many generations."

People who followed his nearly 12-year career as Vermont governor were surprised to hear about Dean's recent comments on the religious aspect of his thinking.

"He never played the religion card as governor of Vermont," said Peter Freyne, a political columnist for the Burlington weekly 7 Days. "Religion and his personal religious views were never raised by the governor during his 11 years in office."

Religious faith is something that rarely plays a role in the politics of New England, despite the soaring white church steeple that is the enduring image of the region, and Dean was no exception during his 20 years of public life in Vermont.

"Part of the culture about this part of the country is religion is a private matter and what people do or don't do about religion is their own private business," said Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis. "I don't recall Howard Dean, or for that matter anybody else who has been governor in the past 20 years -- Richard Snelling, Madeleine Kunin, Howard Dean, talking about religion."

Dean left the Episcopal Church (search) about 20 years ago in a dispute with the Burlington diocese, which opposed a bike path he championed to cross lakefront property it owned. He joined the Congregational Church. His wife, Judy, is Jewish.

Dean always seemed to be eager to talk about almost any topic that came up while he was governor. Religion was the exception. He rarely discussed faith. But his personal life often was off limits, even to his closest allies.

"It would be something that I wouldn't think he would be sharing even with his close friends," said state Sen. Richard Mazza, the longest-serving Democrat in the state Senate and perhaps Dean's closest friend in the legislature.

As it was for many lawmakers, Mazza's decision on how to vote on the civil unions issue was driven in part by his faith. The Catholic Church strongly opposed the bill and tried to sway Mazza and others in its flock. Mazza ultimately decided to vote for the bill, but he said he never discussed his religious considerations with Dean.

Mazza was accustomed to Dean maintaining a strict separation between his political and personal even if some of his gubernatorial decisions often were shaped by personal or family considerations.

"Being as private as he was about his personal life and family ... it doesn't surprise me it may have played a role but that it was not something that he was out talking about," Mazza said.