Emily Swanson ?and Steve Peoples

WASHINGTON: Most Americans think the government should protect religious liberties over gay rights when the two come into conflict, a new Associated Press-GfK poll finds, though fewer think most businesses should be allowed to turn away gay couples because of religious beliefs.

The survey uncovered nuanced views on gay rights as the Supreme Court considers, in a case heard this week, whether the Constitution gives same-sex couples the right to marry.

Americans are more likely to say that religious liberties are more important for the government to protect than the rights of gays and lesbians, by a 56 percent to 40 percent margin, the poll found. Just a quarter of Americans call gay rights a very or extremely important issue to them personally, while half call religious liberties a very or extremely important issue.

But fewer Americans — just 40 percent — think most business owners should be allowed to refuse service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds. That finding goes to the heart of the significant political fallout over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics charged was intended to allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

With public opinion apparently split, it’s an open question how gay rights will play in the 2016 campaign.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, said Republicans would be wise to make religious freedom a central issue because the broad debate highlights intolerance against Christians. “Religious freedom will emerge as a centerpiece, and Democrats will have an impossible time defending against it,” said Rodriguez, whose organization aligns with conservative Republicans on this issue.

Others think the issue could be perilous for the GOP. “Religious liberty works well with religious people, which is the GOP’s base, but the argument is easily turned on its head when the issue is discrimination against gay people,” said veteran Republican strategist John Feehery. “I think the GOP is better off talking about economic security and national security, while leaving this particular issue to the courts to decide.”

Although only a minority of poll respondents thought businesses generally should be able to discriminate against gays or lesbians, support was stronger for letting wedding-related businesses in particular refuse service to same-sex couples — 52 percent said so. That was down slightly since the beginning of February, when 57 percent said so in an earlier AP-GfK poll.

The new poll found a distinct split between Republicans and Democrats on the issue. Most Democrats opposed any such discrimination by businesses; most Republicans thought businesses should have the right to refuse service, whether generally or for wedding matters.