U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s faced a torrent of criticism this week for agreeing to speak at a conservative Christian conference that included others with harsh gay-bashing rhetoric, used his pulpit there Friday to urge love for the gay community.
“I want to be clear with you, abandoning judgment and loving our LGBT neighbors is not a betrayal of what the Bible teaches; it is a fulfillment of it,” Rubio declared Friday before a reported 500 Florida Christian pastors attending the American Renewal Project’s conference in Orlando.
Rubio’s re-election campaign Friday afternoon released a transcript of and a link to a video of a portion of his speech Friday afternoon. He used approximately six of the 27 or so minutes on the released portion of the speech to address gay issues and churches, starting about eight minutes in.
That speech had been widely assailed in advance all week long by leaders of Florida’s LGBT community and others, because the conference agenda also included speakers with histories of hateful comments about gays, including declarations that God would punish America for tolerating gays.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump also spoke at the conference at the Orange County Convention Center Thursday.
Rubio’s critics urged him to back out of his speaking commitment. When he refused, Equality Florida, a gay-rights advocacy group, held a protest rally Thursday across the street from the conference to denounce his presence there.
Numerous speakers called shame on Rubio for their view that he had abandoned his promises to help the LGBT community after the horrific mass murder of 49 people at the popular Orlando gay Pulse nightclub June 12. And they accused Rubio of adding to the pain the Orlando community and families and friends of the victims by joining speakers who would denounce them.
Yet Rubio used his moment before the gathering to urge the pastors to think of gay people as just people, and people who had suffered from hateful discrimination, and to welcome them into their churches.
“If any of us, myself included, told them that Christianity wants nothing to do with them, then I believe deeply that we have failed deeply to represent our Lord Jesus Christ who time and again went out of his way to reach out to the marginalized and to the forgotten of his time,” Rubio said.
Rubio has long held political positions opposing equal rights protection for gays and has long opposed same-sex marriage.
In his speech to the pastors, he signaled that he continues to oppose same-sex marriage, but Rubio expressed that he’s accepting that the love behind such marriages is real. And while he did not explicitly discuss equal rights protection for gays, he reminded the gathering of the bigotry, oppression, and lack of rights gays had long suffered.
Rubio also mentioned the Pulse massacre, but he characterized it much differently than do most people in Orlando’s gay community. The shooter, Omar Mateen, was known to be both pledging allegiance to the ISIS Islamic jihadist movement, and to harbor a deep hatred of gays. The gay community talks mostly about Mateen’s motivation as an attack on gays. Not so, Rubio.
“Two months ago today, not far from this very place, 49 children of God lost their lives at the hands of a radical Islamic jihadist who happened to have attacked a nightclub that was popular with the local LGBT community,” Rubio said.
Rubio also called out some of the other speakers’ most notoriously harsh anti-gay rhetoric, though not by name.
“To love our neighbors, we must recognize that many have experienced sometimes severe condemnation and judgment from some Christians. 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,” he said. “To love our neighbors, we must abandon a spirit of judgment.”
Rubio also offered sympathy to anyone in the conference who felt they could not oppose same-sex marriage without being called “a bigot and a hater.”
Some of Rubio’s critics from earlier this week were not impressed.
Hannah Willard, policy and outreach director at Equality Florida, said Rubio still should not have been there in the first place, “standing shoulder-to-shoulder” with some of the speakers whom Rubio appeared to be criticizing.
She also noted he’s not said or done anything to suggest he would change his positions on federal legislation to improve gay rights protections. And she said his remarks were tone-deaf to what Orlando’s gay community has gone through.
“I am impressed by action,” Willard said. “I think his actions speak far more than his tone-deaf, too little, too late remarks.”