In a speech Friday to evangelical leaders in Orlando, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio encouraged same-sex-marriage opponents to acknowledge the fears and pain of the LGBT community.
Rubio had been criticized by gay-rights activists for his plan to speak to religious conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage in Orlando, the city where a gunman killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in June.
Rubio spoke at the “Rediscovering God in America Renewal Project” conference meeting where religious conservatives gathered.
In his speech, Rubio reiterated his own support for “traditional marriage,” but also asked the audience to listen to the feelings of the LGBT community and not judge.
“In order to love people you have to listen to them,” Rubio said. “You have to understand their perspective, their hope and their dreams and their fears and their pain. 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 whose history has been marred by discrimination against and the rejection of gays and lesbians.”
Rubio called on the group to acknowledge the beliefs of others while maintaining their own beliefs.
“To love our neighbors in the LGBT community we should recognize that even as we stand firm in the belief that marriage is the union between one man and one woman, there are those in that community in same-sex relationships whose love for one another is real, and who feel angry and humiliated that the law did not recognize their relationship as a marriage.”
He told the audience that they shouldn’t judge their gay neighbors.
“And 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. Jesus showed us how to do this. Jesus showed us that we do not have to endorse what people do in order to accept them for who they are: children of a loving and a merciful God.”
Rubio spoke about the shooting where “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.”
While Rubio said a growing number of Americans support same-sex marriage, he also defended the right of people such as himself to state their views in favor of defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
“I acknowledge that those who have a different view have a right to their views, that Americans like myself who support keeping the definition of traditional marriage also have a right to ours,” he said.
Gay-rights activists criticized Rubio for speaking at the event, where expected speakers included Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, who has represented Alabama’s chief justice and a Kentucky clerk in their efforts to block same-sex marriage; David Barton, an evangelical political activist; Bill Federer, a religious broadcaster; Fred Lowery, a pastor and author; and Ken Graves, a pastor.
The founder of the American Renewal Project, David Lane, has said the GOP will collapse if it is open to same-sex marriage.
“While the United States has faced a number of catastrophic periods in her history, perhaps nothing has threatened our utter destruction more than the current moral crisis. God calls homosexuality sin — as He does adultery, stealing, lying, etc.,” he wrote in 2013.
Equality Florida, a gay-rights group, issued a statement following Rubio’s speech:
“Senator Rubio stands shoulder to shoulder with people who make the world less safe for LGBTQ people and invokes our dead with hollow words while actively opposing legal protections against discrimination and widely supported and effective gun control measures,” wrote spokeswoman Hannah Willard. “His stance allows these angry young men easy access to weapons of mass murder without any safeguards. His willful ignorance of the very real discrimination and hatred that LGBTQ people face NOW is not neutral; it is deadly.”
In his speech, Rubio outlined several types of past discrimination, among them a federal government ban on hiring gay employees or when gay individuals couldn’t get served in bars or restaurants. But he didn’t address more recent legislation.
For example, in 2013 Rubio voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
It was shortly after the Orlando shooting that Rubio announced he would run for re-election to the Senate.
“I think when it visits your home state, when it impacts a community you know well, it really gives you pause to think a little bit about your service to your country and where you can be most useful to your country,” Rubio told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt in June.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Alex Leary contributed to this story.