Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent anti-LGBTQ activist in Iowa, is taking the unusual step of inviting seven Democratic presidential candidates to a forum on faith and politics this summer.
Vander Plaats’s Family Leadership Summit typically is limited to Republican candidates, but he told NPR that because several Democrats have spoken about their religious beliefs, he wants to include them in the event for the first time.
“A lot of them are using faith as kind of a focal point, as a centerpiece,” said Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader. “So we’d like to find out what makes them tick.”
He said he was issuing invitations Friday to the seven Democratic candidates ranking highest in recent polls: U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Vice President Joe Biden; and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
An aide to Buttigieg told NPR the mayor would consider attending. Buttigieg, who is gay, drew criticism this week from another leader of the religious right, Franklin Graham, who said homosexuality is a sin from which the mayor should repent. Vander Plaats said he agreed with Graham and that probably most of the audience at the forum would, but he added that conservatives shouldn’t “run from that conversation.”
A spokesman for O’Rourke said the former Texas congressman would not participate. “Vander Plaats and the Family Leader have unapologetically provided a forum for dangerous anti-LGBTQ hate speech on numerous occasions,” Chris Evans said. “They are the antithesis of the unifying, inclusive, welcoming atmosphere that our campaign prides itself on in Iowa and across the country. We will not be participating in this forum.” Other campaigns would not comment on the record.
After the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously for marriage equality in 2009, Vander Plaats led efforts to oust justices as they came up for retention votes. Three of the seven justices were up for retention in 2010, and Iowans voted to remove them. The other four justices involved in the ruling were retained by voters in subsequent elections. Vander Plaats and his group also have persuaded many Republican presidential hopefuls of past years to sign a pledge opposing marriage equality, abortion rights, and so-called Sharia law.
The forum is scheduled for July 12 near Des Moines. Iowa’s caucus, to be held early next year, is the nation’s first vote of the presidential primary season, making the state an important one for candidates of both parties.
Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, executive director of LGBTQ rights group One Iowa, told NPR he had mixed emotions about Vander Plaats’s invitation to Democrats. “I would be a little surprised if any of them really took him up on this offer to engage in this conversation,” Hoffman-Zinnel said. But if gay candidate Buttigieg were to accept, “maybe it could potentially change people’s hearts and minds – or at least get them to think more broadly,” he added.