On Thursday, nine 2020 Democrats took the stage at the CNN Equality Town Hall and announced their support for the Equality Act. That alone puts them on record opposing the religious freedom of conservative Christians and those of other faiths who disagree with same-sex marriage and transgender identity. Yet many of the Democrats stood out in their radical demands on policy and their demonizing of dissent on these issues.
Scholars have documented the animus against conservative Christians, referring to it as Christianophobia. Democrats displayed this animus throughout the event.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) came out swinging. He called for religious schools, charities, and schools to lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage. This viewpoint discrimination would violate free speech, religious freedom, free association, and the Establishment Clause. Such a policy would involve a government endorsement of pro-LGBT religious groups.
Beto O’Rourke on religious institutions losing tax-exempt status for opposing same-sex marriage: “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone … that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us” #EqualityTownHall pic.twitter.com/0ruxeIao8o
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) October 11, 2019
No other candidate went quite so far in their remarks, but many Democrats showed a willingness to demonize the other side in one way or another.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) dodged the issue of whether or not conservative churches should be tax-exempt, but he did insist, “I cannot allow, as a leader, that people are going to use religion as a justification for discrimination.”
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., admitted that “religious liberty is an important principle in this country and we honor that.” He warned however, that “any freedom that we honor in this country has limits when it comes to harming other people. We say that the right to free speech does not include the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. A famous justice once said my right to swing my fist ends where somebody else’s nose begins. And the right to religious freedom ends where religion is being used as an excuse to harm other people.”
He further insisted that “when religion is used in that way, to me it makes God smaller. It to me is an insult not only to us as LGBTQ people, but I think it’s an insult to faith to believe it could be used to hurt people in that way.”
The Christian tradition that I belong to instructs me to identify with the marginalized. It tells me that the greatest thing any of us has to offer is love. Using my religion—any religion—as an excuse to harm others is an insult to faith. #EqualityTownHall pic.twitter.com/rhZt3n7F59
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) October 11, 2019
Buttigieg was responding to a question about whether or not the Bible states, “Thou shalt not serve the gays meatloaf in diner.” Such questions belittle serious religious freedom issues. Diners should not turn LGBT people away, but religious cake artists, photographers, florists, and other artistic professionals should be able to opt out of lending their artistic services to celebrate and effectively endorse an event they disagree with, such as a same-sex wedding. Health professionals should be able to opt out of transgender surgeries that they see as doing real long-term harm to people.
LGBT activists have not just dismissed this religious freedom — they have demonized it. LGBT megadonor Tim Gill has targeted this kind of conscience protection, saying, “We’re going to punish the wicked.”
Buttigieg’s declaration that conservative views on these issues are an “insult to faith” and “harm” people echoes Gill’s rhetoric.
Former Vice President Joe Biden seemed to go even further. When asked about how he would fight hate crimes against LGBT people, Biden advocated for three things: passing the Equality Act, monitoring groups that are similar to terrorist groups, and reinterpreting federal civil rights law to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity — an issue currently before the Supreme Court.
Biden’s second proposal should terrify conservative Christians. He essentially advocated adopting the “hate group” monitoring of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization that accuses conservative and Christian organizations of being “hate groups” and lists them alongside the Ku Klux Klan.
“What we had before to deal with hate crimes was we had a position in our administration, within both the Department of Justice as well as within Homeland Security, a provision to keep watch on these groups that we know are out there —like terrorist groups, they’re similar — that we know are out there, to be able to follow — without violating their First Amendment rights — to be able to follow what they’re doing and follow up on threats that come forward,” Biden said.
Given the Obama DHS’s targeting of conservative groups in an effort to monitor “hate-oriented” organizations, Biden’s advocacy for a terror watchlist of this sort would likely grow into a politicized weapon like the SPLC’s “hate group” list.
While Beto O’Rourke’s bold statements may make all the headlines, Biden’s answer should be more terrifying. O’Rourke is nowhere near the presidency, while Biden is second in the Democratic primary. O’Rourke cannot hide the disgusting attack he uttered, while Biden couched his proposal by insisting he would not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights.
Make no mistake: Biden was advocating a kind of terrorist watch list that would likely target conservative Christian groups opposed to LGBT activism.
Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, asked Joe Biden what he would do to reduce hate crimes against the LGBTQ community.
— CNN (@CNN) October 11, 2019
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has risen above Biden in the polls recently, joked about the idea that any of her supporters might oppose same-sex marriage.
A questioner asked how Warren would respond if a supporter said to her, “Senator, I’m old-fashioned, and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman. What is your response?”
“Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that, and I’m going to say to them, ‘Just marry one woman. I’m cool with that,'” Warren replied to laughs and applause. “Assuming you can find one.”
Elizabeth Warren was asked how she would respond to a person who says that marriage is "between one man and one woman"
— CNN (@CNN) October 11, 2019
Warren was clearly making a joke, but her decision to assume the worst about someone with these beliefs was revealing. Later on, the senator said she could not remember a time when she opposed same-sex marriage, saying it was normal for her. “The hatefulness always really shocked me,” she recalled, insisting that the issue centered on “the worth of every single human being.”
Some who call themselves Christians — the Westboro Baptist Church, in particular — have indeed exhibited hatred toward LGBT people, and Christians should condemn that. However, Bible-believing Christians can disagree with same-sex marriage and transgender identity while reaching out in love to the LGBT people around them.
Throughout the event, Democrats seemed to suggest that only malice could drive disagreement on these issues. That claim makes absurd attacks on religious freedom like those coming from Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke seem defensible.
Attacks on religious freedom are not limited to the 2020 candidates, of course. A recent DNC resolution warned against “religious liberty,” casting conservative arguments on the issue as an attack on civil rights.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) decision legalizing same-sex marriage, wrote that “it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.” That religious freedom to dissent is under attack, and the LGBT town hall put that attack on full display.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.