ORLANDO — In a speech laden with scripture, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on Friday compelled church leaders at a conference here to “abandon the spirit of judgment” against LGBT neighbors. The remarks came on the two-month anniversary of a shooting at the Pulse night club located about 10 miles from the religious gathering.
But civil rights organizations, which had criticized Rubio for attending a gathering featuring some notable anti-LGBT speakers, said the speech would not erase the Florida senator’s “dismal” record on issues important to the community.
Rubio was the headline speaker for The American Renewal Project’s two-day event in Orlando, and on Friday devoted much of a 30-minute speech to encouraging preachers to create an accepting environment free of discrimination. “In order to love people, we have to listen to them,” he said. “When it comes to our brothers and our sisters, our fellow Americans, our neighbors in the LGBT community, we should recognize that our nation, while the greatest nation in the history of mankind, is one with a history that has been marred by the discrimination against and the rejection of gays and lesbians.”
He also emphasized his continued opposition to marriage equality, saying his faith called for the elevation of the “union of one man and one woman.” But he said Christian leaders should understand many gays and lesbians felt “angry and humiliated” that the law until recently did not recognize their own loving relationships. “Many have experienced sometimes severe condemnation and judgment from some Christians,” Rubio said. “They have heard some say that the reason God will bring condemnation on America is because of them. As if somehow God was willing to put up with adultery and gluttony and greed and pride, but now this is the last straw.”
Rubio was among few Republicans to immediately say “the gay community was targeted in this attack.” On Friday, he referenced the shooting in his speech. “Two months ago from today, not far from this very place, 49 children of God lost their lives at the hand of a radical Islamic jihadist,” Rubio said. “He attacked a night club that was popular with the local LGBT community.” Rubio said two days after the attack, he was struck at a service held at First Baptist Orlando by remarks on how seldom many LGBT youth had seen Christians praying for them. “Some of those in attendance hadn’t been inside a church for years, and for many, it was their first experience with Christianity whatsoever.” The senator said it was ultimately up to the gathered pastors to welcome gay youth into faith. “This is not a function of the Senate,” he said. “It is a function of the church.”
But after years of harsh rhetoric on these issues, LGBT leaders greeted Rubio’s remarks as opportunistic. Equality Florida condemned the speech as cynical posturing, noting a lack of legislative response to the Pulse massacre on issues like gun control. “Rubio wants to invoke the names of the victims to deflect criticism of him sharing the stage with notorious bigots,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida. “He used this platform to gin up anti-Muslim hatred while opposing the most basic LGBT protections and gun safety measures that have been shown to dramatically reduce gun deaths. His hypocrisy is appalling.”
The event also featured remarks from individuals like Liberty Counsel chairman Mat Staver, whose organization has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and anti-LGBT activist David Barton. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke to pastors at the event on Thursday.
JoDee Winterhof, Human Rights Campaign senior vice president for Policy and Political Affairs, balked that Rubio in his speech criticized the fact that the federal government once required contractors to fire gay employees, but the senator’s own record on LGBT employment protection has been grim.
“He has consistently opposed even modest steps to provide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people," Winterhof said. “On a day when he should be honoring the victims of the horrific massacre in Orlando and advocating for commonsense gun safety measures, Marco Rubio is shamefully courting the votes of anti-LGBTQ activists and showcasing his opposition to the fundamental civil rights of LGBTQ people.”
Rubio's anti-LGBT record is lengthy. The senator doesn't support the Equality Act proposed in Congress, for example. It would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the 1967 Civil Rights Act, ensuring protection from discrimination in housing and employment. When he had a chance to vote in 2013, Rubio voted against passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which some moderate Republicans helped pass 64-32 in the Senate, though it would stall in the House. But his discriminatory policy stands don't stop there. Rubio has in the past said letting LGBT people adopt children is a "social experiment" that he opposes. He also opposed reversing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that required LGBT people to stay closeted while serving in the U.S. military.
Attendees of the event would likely side with Rubio on all of those issues, but they said critiquing the gathering as anti-LGBT missed the faith community’s message. “That group [LGBT protestors] thinks that they are all we think about,” said Jim Harris, a pastor at Riverview Heights Baptist Church in Wauchula, Florida. “We have a set of values. I don’t hate anything. These are the values I have in life.”
But Joanie Bigham, a member of PFLAG’s chapter in Palm Beach, Florida, said Rubio disrespected LGBT rights by attending the evangelical gathering while other leaders, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, were making pilgrimages to the Pulse. She balked that Rubio would come to Orlando the day of the shooting “for the photo ops on CNN hours after this happened,” but chose on this anniversary to share a stage with anti-LGBT speakers.
Watch the complete Rubio speech via his Facebook page: