Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke said religious institutions should be stripped of their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage, a position that sparked swift and fierce criticism from social conservatives.
The former El Paso congressman made the comment Thursday night during a CNN town hall on LGBTQ rights. Anchor Don Lemon asked O'Rourke, "Do you think religious institutions — like colleges, churches, charities — should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?"
"Yes," O’Rourke replied without hesitating, drawing a round of applause. "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."
In taking the stance, O'Rourke again staked out politically explosive territory with few allies in the primary field, much like his crusade for a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons following the deadly El Paso shooting in August. He did not immediately back down from the position on tax-exempt status, tweeting his quote on the topic minutes after he was done at the town hall.
By Friday, GOP reaction had intensified, with U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, issuing a statement denouncing O'Rourke for "extreme intolerance" and "bigoted nonsense."
"O’Rourke and some Democrats have declared war on churches," Texas Values president Jonathan Saenz said in a statement. "We say come and take it. This unconstitutional threat of using the government to punish churches for their Biblical beliefs on marriage must end and will be vigorously opposed. This is just another example of leftists that want to effectively ban the Bible and destroy our US Constitution."
Calling O'Rourke's position a "direct affront to the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty," the Plano-based First Liberty Institute said it was prepared to take legal action if O'Rourke or any future president sought to carry out the idea.
Earlier in the town hall, which was in Los Angeles, one of O'Rourke's primary rivals, Cory Booker, did not go nearly as far in response to a similar question. Booker, a U.S. senator from New Jersey, emphasized that there needs to be "consequences for discrimination" but repeatedly declined to say if he believed religious institutions should lose their tax-exempt status over opposition to gay marriage.
O’Rourke’s campaign dialed back his position as the criticism mounted.
“Of course, Beto was referring to religious institutions who take discriminatory action,” spokeswoman Aleigha Cavalier said in a statement.
O'Rourke released a plan for LGBTQ equality in June. Lemon cited it as he asked O'Rourke the question Thursday night, noting it said, "Freedom of religion is a fundamental right, but it should not be used to discriminate."
O'Rourke has previously targeted tax-exempt status for the National Rifle Association, calling for its revocation in response to a report by U.S. Senate Democrats that it served as a "foreign asset" for Russia ahead of the 2016 election.