U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and Republican nominee Donald Trump are set to attend events in Orlando for conservative pastors, put on by some of the country’s most radical anti-gay groups. The gathering comes two months after the Pulse nightclub shooting, in which 49 members and allies of the LGBTQ community were killed.
With both Trump and Rubio in the midst of heated campaigns, the events reflect the prominence and political sway that anti-gay religious conservatives still hold within the Republican Party, despite calls by some party leaders for more tolerance. For LGBTQ advocates, however, the candidates' decisions to speak to these groups wipes away the thin veneer of tolerance that the two Republicans have recently tried to construct and instead affirms their allegiance to the religious right.
The Florida Renewal Project, an affiliate of the American Renewal Project, holds its “Rediscovering God in America” event this Thursday and Friday. Rubio headlines a Thursday gathering. Donald Trump addresses the American Renewal Project’s private “Pastors and Pews” on Friday, which is the two-month anniversary of the Pulse shooting, to discuss how he hopes to champion the Christian conservative agenda.
David Lane, a self-described political operative who works to organize conservative evangelical voters and recruit far-right pastors to run for elected office, founded the American Renewal Project. The group, which has held similar events in swing states, is a major player in conservative politics. Past Republican presidential contenders like Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee have all attended Lane’s events or appeared in ads for the group. Mike Pence, Trump’s vice presidential candidate, has also attended a Lane event.
Right Wing Watch has thoroughly documented Lane’s opposition to LGBTQ issues. In 2013, Lane said that “homosexuals praying at the inauguration” of President Obama in 2012 would lead to car bombings in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Des Moines, Iowa. He called upon conservative Christians to prepare for martyrdom as they fight to “save the nation from the pagan onslaught imposing homosexual marriage.” Lane argues that homosexuality is debauchery, will lead to the destruction of America, and is part of Marxist “psychological conditioning” plot.
“Homosexual totalitarianism is out of the closet, the militants are trying herd Christians there,” Lane told Bloomberg this week.
The Orlando-based Liberty Counsel Action sent out invitations for the forum. Its affiliate, Liberty Counsel, headed by Mat Staver, an attorney who represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples will also be speaking at the event. He, too, has a long list of vitriolic comments about the LGBTQ community. Staver called memorial gatherings for victims of the Pulse shooting “homosexual love fests,” has described the gay rights movement as “demonic” and “doing the bidding of the devil,” and compared gay rights supporters protesting Indiana’s “religious freedom” law to terrorists. He also said the failure of Washington Mutual and Wachovia during the Great Recession was because the banks “actively promoted the homosexual agenda.”
A number of anti-gay conservatives plan to speak at the event, including David Barton, a GOP activist who believes that God is preventing a cure to HIV/AIDS as a penalty for homosexuality.
Rubio, who is currently running for re-election to the U.S. Senate, rejected Florida Democrats’ demand that he cancel his appearance and apologize to the LGBTQ community. "The event I will be speaking at in Orlando is a gathering of local pastors and faith leaders: Leave it to the media and liberal activists to label a gathering of faith leaders as an anti-LGBT event,” Rubio said in a statement. "Because I believe that a strong America is not possible without strong families and strong values, for years now I have participated in events hosted by faith leaders to speak about the cultural and social issues before America, including the importance of parents and families, religious liberties and combating poverty.”
Throughout his rise to prominence in the Republican Party, Rubio has been strongly aligned with the religious right. He staunchly opposes gay marriage and believes that gays and lesbians should not adopt children. Rubio also voted against legislation that would grant LGBTQ Americans protections from discrimination in the workplace. As a presidential candidate, he vowed to repeal on his first day in office President Obama’s executive orders that protect LGBTQ people in the federal government from discrimination.
Still, during his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Rubio made overtures to the gay community. His staffers reportedly met regularly with the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest organization of gay conservatives, to discuss ways to work together. Rubio also began softening his rhetoric, saying that he would attend the gay wedding of a loved one and that he believed "that sexual preference is something that people are born with” and that it is not a choice.
After ending his presidential campaign, Rubio said that the Pulse shooting convinced him to reconsider running for re-election to his U.S. Senate seat, a move that many gay advocates blasted as political opportunism. “It’s shameful that Marco Rubio would use that tragedy for political gain when he has never been an ally for the LGBTQ community,” Brandon Lorenz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, told The American Prospect. “I think [his attendance at the event is] confirmation of what we already knew. If you look at his rhetoric, he has been a consistent opponent of LGBTQ equality. These are some of the most notorious anti-equality activists in the country. It is deeply troubling.”
The Log Cabin Republicans also have reservations about Rubio. “It’s definitely something that raises my eyebrows,” Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, told the Prospect. “I don’t know if it’s a step back, but perhaps is none too surprising. Senator Rubio has fashioned himself as next generation Republican, but that branding didn’t quite square with his positions on marriage equality.”
“Nonetheless, what matters to me is what his message is. My hope is that he may use this to bring message of greater tolerance, instead of continued opposition,” Angelo adds.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg Politics notes that the event is a political necessity for a Republican presidential candidate like Trump. White evangelicals make up 20 percent of all registered voters in the country. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Trump dominating this bloc of voters with 76 percent support, compared with 18 percent for Hillary Clinton.
During the presidential campaign, Trump has opposed marriage equality and has said that he would “strongly consider” appointing judges who would overturn the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. However, Trump did use his Republican National Convention speech to express support for the LGBTQ community, saying, “As president, I will do everything in my power to protect LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
Rubio has made a shrewd political calculation, too, as he will probably face Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy, a Florida representative, who will try to hang onto Clinton’s presidential campaign coattails. Nevertheless, Florida is a key battleground state, and the Democrats hope to put Rubio’s Senate seat in play. Most polls show Rubio ahead of Murphy by at least a few points. But his devastating home-state loss to Trump in the Florida Republican primary likely shook his confidence, as shown by his reluctant endorsment of Trump in July after months of wavering. Tapping into the political power of the evangelical community helped send Rubio to Washington—the question is whether it will save the senator come November.
Correction: Liberty Counsel/Counsel Action is not a sponsor of the Florida forum.