Beto O’Rourke says he’d revoke tax-exempt status of religious groups that oppose same sex marriage

WASHINGTON – Beto O’Rourke — already pushing a ban on assault weapons — added Thursday night to the list of issues sure to alienate conservative voters if he makes it to the general election, by vowing to revoke the tax exempt status of churches that oppose same-sex marriage.

The former El Paso congressman made the comments during a CNN town hall devoted to LGBTQ issues.

His stance toward conservative religious institutions was far more aggressive than that of most rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Texan seemed to be addressing acts of discrimination, such as withholding insurance benefits, although CNN’s Don Lemmon framed the question in terms of belief: “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 said without hesitation, drawing applause from the Los Angeles 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,” he added. “So as president we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing on the rights of our fellow Americans.”

Two weeks ago, O’Rourke vowed to revoke the NRA’s tax exempt status. By that point, he had already alienated Second Amendment advocates. In the wake of the Aug. 3 rampage at a Walmart in his hometown, O’Rourke vowed to ban assault-style weapons and institute a mandatory buyback– effectively, confiscation of up to 15 million guns.

On the right, defense of florists, bakeries and wedding chapels that refused service to same-sex couples animated the 2016 Republican primaries, with Sen. Ted Cruz and others tapping into fears of cultural shifts and assaults on religious freedom.

Ahead of 2020, a mirror-image debate has emerged among Democratic contenders striving to assure voters that they would be a tireless champion of equality.

O’Rourke’s stance on tax exempt status invited accusations from the right that in his drive for tolerance, he is trying to punish religious groups that disagree with him.

“Yesterday: ‘Live and let live. My choices don’t affect your life. #Tolerance.’ Today: ‘Any church that doesn’t embrace my views will lose its tax-exemption!” conservative commentator Michael Knowles tweeted late Thursday in response to his comments.

Sophia A. Nelson, an MSNBC commentator and author of “E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America,” likewise took O’Rourke to task.

“How dare you suggest that we give up #ReligiousFreedom #religiousliberty and remove 501c3 tax status to churches if they oppose #LGBTQ rights or [same sex marriage,” she tweeted. The Constitution, she added, guarantees “equality for ALL. Not just for some!”

The outpouring from gay rights activists was enthusiastic, though one Twitter commenter warned that O’Rourke is only feeding into the suspicion some conservative Christians hold toward Democrats, and their sense of persecution.

O’Rourke was one of nine Democratic candidates taking part in back to back “Equality in America” town hall sessions on CNN. Not all of the candidates were asked about tax exempt status for churches.

Earlier in the evening, Sen. Cory Booker, stepped carefully when asked whether “religious education institutions should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose LGBTQ rights.”

“We must stand up as a nation to stay that religion cannot be an excuse to deny people health insurance, education, or more,” he said, broadening the issue to include bakeries and other private employers.

When CNN’s Dana Bash pressed to say if such institutions should lose their tax exempt status, Booker vowed “consequences” but wouldn’t say outright whether that should include loss of tax exemption for religious institutions.

­­­“You cannot discriminate….I’m going to make sure that I hold them accountable,” he said.

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