Conservative politicians attending a controversial religious conference in Orlando insisted it was wrong to label the event as "anti-LGBT," but a video posted of speaker E.W. Jackson confirmed antigay politics remained a central issue to many there.
"They can issue 1,000 Supreme Court decisions, they can rewrite 1,000 dictionaries, they can pass 1,000 pieces of legislation, but a marriage is still a union between one man and one woman," Jackson told pastors and church leaders at the American Renewal Project event.
Jackson made his remarks Thursday, shortly before former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee introduced Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to the crowd and a day before Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gave a speech suggesting church leaders should remain engaged in policy debate even as he called on Christian leaders to "abandon the spirit of judgment" against LGBT neighbors. Rubio's speech was called hypocritical by LGBT activists that point to his own judgmental policy positions. (He opposes same-sex couples marrying or adopting children, and LGBT people serving openly in the military, while also voting against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act when it was considered in the Senate.) Activists called his rhetoric a transparent attempt to counter criticism that the senator -- who is running for reelection -- was attending the event.
Rubio had defended his attendance ahead of the event by blaming the media for falsely characterizing it as anti-LGBT. "The event I will be speaking at in Orlando is a gathering of local pastors and faith leaders," Rubio said in a statement. "Leave it to the media and liberal activists to label a gathering of faith leaders as an anti-LGBT event. It is nothing of the sort. It is a celebration of faith."
His claim could have been verified, except that The Advocate was denied entry into the event. Organizers said the conference was closed to press. The only media outlet included was CBN News, which was invited as a special guest. Even with the event largely closed to press, two speakers, Jackson and Rubio, did stream video of their own remarks using Facebook Live.
Jackson's speech wasn't as colorful as his previous statements, but he did restate opposition to marriage equality at multiple points and called on church leaders to engage politicians on the matter. "The church is supposed to preach a controversial message," he said. "Have you read the Bible?"
"Traditional" marriage was among the issues he said leaders should fight for. "I don't think abortion is a political issue, it is a moral issue. I don't think marriage is a political issue, it is a moral issue," he said.
And while Jackson said during his speech that racism and discrimination were a sad aspect of humanity, he expressed resentment at the state of racial politics in America. "It is not a violation of some kind of racial solidarity when I stand up and say that President Obama is wrong about marriage," Jackson said. "He is wrong about life. He is wrong about some of these things."
Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 2013 and for the U.S. Senate in 2012, has a lengthy history of disparaging LGBT people, labeling Caitlyn Jenner "insane" for being transgender, suggesting the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy would turn the U.S. military into "Sodom and Gomorrah," and proclaiming that Obama's declaration of Pride Month in 2009 made him feel "ikky all over."
Rubio and Trump took heavy criticism for speaking from the same stage as noted anti-LGBT speakers including Jackson, Liberty Counsel chairman Mat Staver, WallBuilders president David Barton and self-proclaimed religious right historian Bill Federer. Neither Trump nor any of the other speakers have released video or transcripts of what they said during the closed-door event.
Trump spoke with CBN about why he wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which threatens churches' tax-exempt status if they endorse or advocate defeat of particular political candidates, and he told the evangelical news outlet that changing that would help church leaders speak out for "religious liberty" and benefit businesses that want to discriminate against LGBT individuals. He has reportedly made that promise behind closed doors in other gatherings with evangelical leaders.
Groups including the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida criticized the event, held about 10 miles from the location of the Pulse massacre, as anti-LGBT. Staver, who has called tributes to Pulse victims "homosexual love fests," did not broadcast his speech. And although Trump has talked about the Pulse shooting on the campaign trail repeatedly, he still hasn't visited the shrine to Pulse victims set up at the shooting site, and neither did Staver -- though he did visit the world's largest McDonald's, located on Orlando's International Drive.
Watch the E.W. Jackson speech in the video from his Facebook page below:
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