Hopes that the Republicans may become more accepting of the rights of gay and lesbian Americans suffered a setback yesterday when a party leader attacked civil unions.

Three weeks ago a group representing lesbian and gay Republicans said that the election of Michael Steele as chairman of the party’s national committee would mark a change of direction after two successive election defeats.

Log Cabin Republicans said that Mr Steele had acknowleged in a media interview during his campaign the importance of reaching out to Log Cabin and other mainstream GOP groups “as the party looks to chart a future course.”

In a radio interview yesterday Mr Steele was asked if “Republicans ought to consider some sort of alternative to redefining marriage and maybe in the road, down the road to civil unions.”

“No, no no,” he told talk show host Mike Gallagher.

“What would we do that for? What are you, crazy?

“No. Why would we backslide on a core, founding value of this country?

“I mean this isn’t something that you just kind of like, ‘Oh well, today I feel, you know, loosey-goosey on marriage.’”

At present gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut, while civil unions that carry all the state rights of marriage are legal in New Jersey, Vermont and New Hampshire.

Republican candidate John McCain was defeated in the Presidential election in November by Barack Obama, bringing to an end eight years of a Republican control of the White House.

The Democrats retained control of and gained seats in both Houses of the US Congress.

Gay news outlet The Advocate reported earlier this month when Mr Steele was elected as RNC Chair that he “opposes gay marriage, and in January 2005 he joined socially conservative religious leaders for a rally in Baltimore calling for a statewide constitutional ban on same-sex unions.”

Mr Steele, lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, is the first African-American to serve as RNC Chair.

The RNC develops the party’s political platform and coordinates fundraising and election strategy.

Log Cabin said Mr Steele will be “the most important person in shaping the party’s future” and highlighted that during his acceptance speech he said the Republicans are “going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighbourhood, every community.”

The gay caucus within the Democratic party said Mr Steele was opposed to equality for gay and lesbian Americans.

“Although there were candidates that were not selected for RNC chair with stronger anti-equality credentials than Michael Steele, which shows hope for the party, we should carefully consider his record as the Republican party moves forward,” said National Stonewall Democrats executive director Jon Hoadley.

“The Republican party has a troubling history of anti-equality activism. Unfortunately, Michael Steele has been a part of that record.

“Each time that he has promised voters a new tone in politics he has also taken steps to solidify the anti-LGBT positions of his own party.”