Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday urged respect and sensitivity in the debate over gay marriage, but ducked a question about her own views on the question.

"This is an issue that can be debated and can be discussed in our country with respect for every human being," Rice told a newspaper interviewer.

"When we get into difficult debates about social policy, we get into difficult debates that touch people's lives, the only thing that I ask is that Americans do it with a kind of sensitivity that real individuals and real human beings are involved here."

The Senate rejected a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage by a wide margin last week. It was a defeat for President Bush and other Republicans who hope the issue will rally GOP voters for the November elections. The amendment could be brought up again.

Asked for her opinion of the amendment, Rice told The News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., "This is not my area of expertise or, frankly, my area of concentration at this point."

Rice spoke following an address to the Southern Baptist Convention. The newly chosen president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination opposes gay marriage, as does Bush.

"The union of a man and woman in marriage is the most enduring and important human institution," Bush said before the Senate vote. "Our policies should aim to strengthen families, not undermine them. And changing the definition of marriage would undermine the family structure."

Forty-five of the 50 states have acted to define traditional marriage in ways that would ban same-sex marriage — 19 with state constitutional amendments and 26 with statutes.

The proposed federal amendment would prohibit states from recognizing same-sex marriages. After approval by Congress, it would have to be ratified by at least 38 state legislatures.