Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio told the Christian Broadcasting Network that labeling those who oppose same-sex marriage as a "hater" or "homophobe" could pose a threat to Christianity.
"We are at the water's edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech, because today we've reached the point in our society where if you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater," the Florida senator said. "So what's the next step after that? After they're done going after individuals, the next step is to argue that the teachings of mainstream Christianity, the catechism of the Catholic Church, is hate speech. And that's a real and present danger."
The remarks, posted Tuesday on CBN's website, came just weeks before the Supreme Court is set to rule on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Many legal experts believe the Court will invalidate gay marriage bans, in part because there are five justices who voted to advance gay rights as recently as 2013.
Rubio's comments appear aimed at the evangelical base, a core Republican constituency that remains strongly against same-sex marriage even as a growing majority of Americans wants it to be legal. That dichotomy makes it a thorny issue: respected party strategists, including Rubio's own pollster Whit Ayres, have warned that a candidate perceived as anti-gay won't be able to connect with voters under 30. The Republican National Committee warned in a brutally candid 2012 election post-mortem that the party must be more "welcoming and inclusive" when it comes to gay rights or "young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out."
The rhetoric from Rubio, who is locked in a tough fight for the Republican nomination, was more aggressively in the CBN interview than last month when he was asked about the issue by MSNBC, a cable provider that attracts a largely left-of-center audience.
"Ultimately the decision on how we define marriage has always belonged to the states," he said in the April 14 interview. "If in fact, as the polls indicate, a growing number of Americans believe that marriage between two individuals of the same sex should be legal, then they can petition their state legislatures and change their state laws. And in fact, I suspect you'll see that happen. It's already begun to happen."
Though he has maintained that he personally opposes gay marriage, the Florida senator has called for respecting both sides of the debate. He said he believes states should be free to allow or ban it and has said he would attend a gay wedding of someone close to him.