August 12, 2016 at 1:24 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Marco Rubio speaks at Orlando anti-LGBT conference
Marco Rubio, Values Voter Summit, Republican Party, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, Washington Blade, gay news

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) spoke at an anti-LGBT conference in Orlando, Fla., on Aug. 12, 2016. His speech coincided with the two month anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Friday acknowledged the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre in his speech at an anti-LGBT conference in Orlando, Fla.

“Two months ago today, not far from this very place, 49 children of God lost their lives to the hand of a radical, Islamic jihadist,” said Rubio as he delivered the keynote address at the “Rediscovering God in America” conference. “It happened at the exact nightclub that was popular with the local LGBT community.”

The two-day conference, which the American Renewal Project organized, is taking place at a hotel that is roughly 10 miles from the Pulse nightclub.

Mat Staver, chair of the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based anti-LGBT legal group, is among those who spoke at the gathering. Rubio delivered his speech two months to the day after a gunman killed 49 people and injured dozens of others in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Rubio noted hundreds of people attended a prayer vigil at an Orlando church that took place two days after the massacre. He pointed out that a local LGBT activist was among those who spoke.

“Many of the members of that community had never seen the sight of hundreds of Christians praying for them,” said Rubio. “That didn’t mean it didn’t happen, they had just never seen them.”

“Finding a place where they could be prayed over for who they are exists only in their dreams,” he added.

The National LGBTQ Task Force in a press release said that Rubio referenced Victoria Kirby York, a staffer from Florida, in his speech.

“I’m shocked that Senator Rubio used my words in Orlando exactly two months after the Pulse night club tragedy, alongside people whose actions have caused considerable harm to the people whose lives were lost and many others still living with injuries and trauma,” said York in the National LGBTQ Task Force. “If his words represent a change of heart that is translated into actions that support LGBTQ freedom, justice and equality then we wholeheartedly welcome it and the actions that must therefore follow.”

‘I continue to support the traditional definition of marriage’

Rubio reiterated his opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples during his speech.

“For over 2,000 years, Christianity has defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” he said. “It is now undeniable that there is a growing number of Americans who seek to expand that definition to include the union of two people of the same sex.”

“I continue to support the traditional definition of marriage and I do so not because i seek to impose my views on others and not because I seek to discriminate against anyone,” added Rubio. “I support the traditional definition of marriage because I believe the union of one man and one woman is a special relationship with an extraordinary record of success of raising children into strong and successful people.”

Rubio acknowledged “those who have a different view have a right to their views.”

“Americans like myself who support keeping the traditional definition of marriage also have a right to ours,” he said.

Rubio added the debate around marriage rights for same-sex couples “has been marred by heated rhetoric . . . that often comes from both sides that has created an unfortunate divide between LGBT Americans and the American church.”

He said those who speak against marriage rights for gays and lesbians have been accused of promoting “hate speech” and religious freedom laws have been described as “anti-LGBT.” Rubio also noted advocacy groups have urged the NCAA to divest from institutions that support “traditional beliefs” on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy,” he said.

Rubio also acknowledged that LGBT Americans have faced discrimination in the U.S., including at the hands of the federal government.

“To love our neighbors in the LGBT community we should recognize that even as we stand firm in the belief that marriage is the union between one man and one woman, there are those in that community in same-sex relationships whose love for one another is real and feel angry and humiliated that the law did not recognize their relationship as a marriage,” he said. “To love our neighbors we must recognize that many have experienced — sometimes — severe condemnation and judgment from some Christians.”

Equality Florida blasts Rubio over gun control

Rubio, a former presidential candidate, announced in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre that he would seek re-election in the U.S. Senate. He spoke at the Liberty Counsel conference a day after Donald Trump addressed attendees.

Family members of the Pulse nightclub massacre victims, local activists and clergy on Thursday gathered outside the hotel in which the conference is taking place to protest Rubio and Trump.

Equality Florida, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, has sharply criticized Rubio for not supporting gun control measures in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre. The Florida Republican made no mention of the issue in his speech at the conference.

“Two months ago 49 people were murdered by yet another angry young man embracing a hateful ideology who targeted an LGBT nightclub,” Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith told the Washington Blade in a statement after Rubio’s speech. “Our gun laws are so appalling, this madman was able to purchase weapons capable of mass slaughter.”

“Rubio wants to invoke their names to gin up anti-Muslim hatred while opposing the most basic LGBT protections and gun safety measures that have been shown to dramatically reduce gun deaths,” she added. “His hypocrisy is appalling and he chose to share a stage with some of the leading voices that attack the dignity and safety of LGBT people.”

The Blade has reached out to Rubio’s office for comment.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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