LOS ANGELES (BP) -- Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke's declaration churches should lose their tax-exempt status if they do not agree with same-sex marriage drew quick rebuttals from Southern Baptist leaders and others.
If elected president, the former congressman from Texas said he would make such a policy a priority in response to a question during the Power of Our Pride Presidential Town Hall Thursday night (Oct. 10) in Los Angeles. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation sponsored the town hall, and CNN conducted and telecast the event. HRC is the world's largest civil rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
CNN host Don Lemon asked O'Rourke during the town hall, "Do you think religious institutions -- like colleges, churches, charities -- should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?"
"Yes," O'Rourke replied to a cheering audience. "There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone, or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us.
"And so as president, we are going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans."
Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore called O'Rourke's comments "alarming because they represent precisely what those on his side of these issues have said for years that they are not seeking to do."
"Tax exemption for churches is not a 'reward,' but a recognition that the power to tax is the power to destroy," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments for Baptist Press. "And, indeed, with these comments Congressman O'Rourke threatens to destroy every church, synagogue or other religious institution that does not adopt his viewpoint on sexual ethics over and against their own traditions and authoritative texts. That is not the American way."
Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted, "I believe this is where the entire left is headed. I have been saying for years this will someday happen. Will it be sooner than later?!"
In a written statement, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., described O'Rourke's plan as "extreme intolerance" that is "un-American."
"The whole point of the First Amendment is that, no matter who you love and where you worship, everyone is created with dignity and we don't use government power to decide which religious beliefs are legitimate and which aren't," Sasse said. "This bigoted nonsense would target a lot of sincere Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Leaders from both political parties have a duty to flatly condemn this attack on very basic American freedoms."
The AND Campaign -- which promotes "redemptive justice [and] values-based policy" -- tweeted, "This would devastate churches, mosques & temples that house immigrants, feed the poor, educate children, visit the sick (&) love LGBTQ people even when they disagree with them."
O'Rourke's comments and the responses reflect the ongoing battle between religious liberty and sexual liberty being waged in the United States on several fronts.
Nine Democrats appeared at the town hall, but Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey was the only other candidate to be asked about tax exemptions for institutions that disagree with gay marriage, according to news reports. He did not provide a direct answer, CNN reported.
According to CNN, Booker said he believes "fundamentally that discrimination is discrimination. And if you are using your position to try to discriminate [against] others, there must be consequences to that. And I will make sure to hold them accountable, using" the Department of Justice or another investigatory body.