Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean (search) on Friday criticized President Bush for restricting stem-cell research (search) based on religious beliefs, even though he now says his own faith affected his decision to extend legal rights to gay couples.

The difference, Dean said, was that Bush's decision can hurt people, while his was strictly an issue of morality or ethics.

In 2001, Bush limited research that destroyed human embryos (search). Many Christian organizations and abortion-rights opponents were against the research, while many scientists and medical professionals say it could lead to treatment of disease.

"I think we ought to make scientific decisions, not theological and theoretical decisions," Dean told voters at a town-hall meeting. "I think that what the president did on stem-cell research was based on his religious beliefs and I think that is wrong."

Earlier this week, Dean said his Christian faith contributed to his decision to sign the civil unions bill four years ago when he was governor of Vermont. The bill gave gay couples the same legal rights as married couples without allowing them to wed.

"The hallmark of Christianity 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 civil unions."

On Friday, Dean said it's wrong to use religion on the stem-cell issue because it deprives people from their ability to recover from serious illnesses.

"I would differentiate it from my support of civil unions because I didn't deprive anybody of anything by supporting civil unions, that was really a choice that had to do with what many people would say (is) morality or ethics," he said. "That's a different thing, I think, than applying your religious beliefs with the result of depriving other people of really — literally in some cases — a very long disease free life."

When Dean signed the landmark civil unions bill in 2000, he spoke of the legal reasons for giving gay and lesbian couples marriage rights and benefits and discussed how it was a deeply personal issue for thousands of people. He said nothing about how religious faith swaying his thinking.

Dean told the town-hall meeting Friday that if elected president he would allow stem-cell research. He said he has a nephew with diabetes who could benefit from it.

"We'll give hope back to people with diabetes and other diseases who could be cured by stem-cell research," Dean said.

Bush, in announcing his decision in August 2001, said the use of human embryos had led different people of different faiths to different conclusions. He said he himself had given the question thought and prayer.

"I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our creator," Bush said in a national address. "I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your president I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world."