LOS ANGELES (RNS)—Democratic presidential hopefuls waded into theological waters while speaking at a forum on LGBTQ equality, and one sparked a firestorm with his call to revoke the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.
Nine candidates participated in the forum, organized by CNN and the LGBTQ rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. They fielded questions on a variety of topics, ranging from same-sex marriage to their thoughts on whether organizations and businesses should have the right to invoke religion as a reason to deny services or opportunities to LGBTQ people.
Beto O’Rourke, former congressman from El Paso, took the most controversial position at the event when CNN host Don Lemon asked him, “Do you think religious institutions—like colleges, churches, charities—should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?”
“Yes,” O’Rourke replied. “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone, or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us.
“And so, as president, we are going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”
Swift reaction to O’Rourke’s comments
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore called O’Rourke’s comments “alarming because they represent precisely what those on his side of these issues have said for years that they are not seeking to do.”
“Tax exemption for churches is not a ‘reward,’ but a recognition that the power to tax is the power to destroy,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “And, indeed, with these comments Congressman O’Rourke threatens to destroy every church, synagogue or other religious institution that does not adopt his viewpoint on sexual ethics over and against their own traditions and authoritative texts. That is not the American way.”
Attorney Kelly Shackelford of the Plano-based First Liberty Institute called the comments by O’Rourke “a direct affront to the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty.”
“His outrageous call to end this longstanding benefit to houses of worship is a dangerous attack on one of the most fundamental rights under the First Amendment, the right of religious institutions to operate according to their deeply held beliefs,” Shackelford said.
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James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, likewise issued a statement condemning O’Rourke’s remarks.
“This outright attack on religious freedom is disgraceful and should prompt an outcry from all advocates of true tolerance and diversity,” Dobson said. “The vast majority of Americans recognize and cherish the freedoms that fortify the foundation of this nation. We should expect and demand our elected officials do the same.”
Religion not ‘an excuse to harm other people’
When Pete Buttigieg was asked at the forum to point to any verses in the Bible that support refusing services to LGBTQ people—a reference to religious refusal laws that allow organizations and businesses to invoke religion as a reason to deny services—the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., asserted he was raised with a different kind of Christian faith.
“Without telling others how to worship, the Christian tradition that I belong to instructs me to identify with the marginalized, and to recognize that the greatest thing that any of us have to offer is love,” said Buttigieg, who is Episcopalian. The Episcopal Church ordains LGBTQ people and allows priests to officiate same-sex unions.
Buttigieg went on to contend that the right to religious freedom “ends where religion is being used as an excuse to harm other people,” and that “it makes God smaller” when faith is used to disparage another.
“It, to me, is an insult not only to us as LGBTQ people, but I think it’s an insult to faith to believe that it could be used to hurt people in that way,” he said.
Some candidates at odds with their church leaders
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren contrasted her own Methodist faith with that of people she said harmed LGBTQ people.
Asked whether there ever was a time when she didn’t support same-sex marriage, she sang a line from “Jesus loves the little children,” a children’s hymn.
“To me, that is the heart of it, that was the basis of the faith that I grew up in,” she said. “It truly is about preciousness of each and every life, it is about the worth of every human being. I saw this as a matter of faith.”
She added the “hatefulness” directed toward LGBTQ people “always really shocked me—especially for people of faith.”
Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro rejected what he saw as a false dichotomy between religious Americans and LGBTQ people.
“As a Catholic—and I’m sure we have many people of faith (in the audience)—I think we need to end this myth that these two things are separate,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the LGBTQ community that are also people of faith. They’re religious. They believe.”
Castro went on to note that religious LGBTQ people have faced hardships within faith communities. He said that while a president “can’t do anything about” religious institutions, “when it comes to government funding or how our laws treat people, everybody is going to be treated the same.”
For Castro and Warren, some of their views are at odds with their own religious hierarchy. Both the Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church oppose same-sex marriage.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey also cited his faith to explain what motivated him to fight for LGBTQ equality.
“My faith, as well as my American values, will make me fight on every front to make sure that people are not discriminating against someone because of who they are,” he said.
Booker attends a church affiliated with the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc. According to its website, the denomination does not support same-sex marriage as a national entity but also “does not dictate to its constituent churches what position to take on issues because we believe in the autonomy of the local church.”
This edited version of the RNS article includes additional reporting by Baptist Press and Managing Editor Ken Camp.