But Rubio has doubled down in startlingly callous fashion. "The event I will be speaking at in Orlando is a gathering of local pastors and faith leaders," he told the Tampa Bay Times. "Leave it to the media and liberal activists to label a gathering of faith leaders as an anti-LGBT event. It is nothing of the sort. It is a celebration of faith."
Yesterday a group that knows a thing or two about "celebrations of faith" — the Boston-based DignityUSA, which advocates on behalf of LGBT Catholics nationwide — issued a statement declaring Rubio's excuses meaningless and harmful. The group then demanded he pull out of the event.
"She was like, 'Are you aware Rubio is speaking at this event?'" says DignityUSA president Marianne Duddy-Burke, who heard about the event when a distressed DignityUSA member called to tell her how hurt she was. "I was so disgusted and outraged. So many of those kids that died were Catholic, Latino, queer kids. You have to act on their behalf. They were Senator Rubio’s constituents."
The meeting at the heart of the conflict is dubbed the "Rediscovering God in America Renewal Project." It's organized by a group run by Mat Staver, a lawyer who represented Kentucky Court Clerk Kim Davis, who famously refused to let same-sex couples get married in her state. A group called the Florida Renewal Project is cohosting the conference: Its leader, David Lane, has said LGBT people praying at Obama's 2013 inauguration should be punished with "car bombs," has said the gay-rights movement is a "Marxist conditioning plot," and encouraged Christians to "prepare for martyrdom" to fight gay-rights activists.
The event's other speakers include a man who once said God is rightfully blocking a cure for HIV and AIDS to punish LGBT people; a man who claims homosexuals are to blame for Islamic terrorism; a preacher demanding Catholics fight the rise of "militant homofascism"; a pastor who advocates strict "covenant marriage" between men and women; and former U.S. Rep. Bob McEwen, who is now a lobbyist who writes "pro-family" legislation.
After swearing repeatedly on the presidential campaign trail that he'd never run for Senate again, Rubio said he was "profoundly affected" by the Pulse nightclub shooting that killed 49 and wounded 53 in June, and used the tragedy as a chance to step back into the Senate race.
This week, a host of other LGBT-rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, spoke out against Rubio's appearance at the event.
In a statement, Duddy-Burke called Rubio's appearance a "profound insult" to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando this past June.
"Your participation in this event is seen as a profound insult to the victims of this shooting, their families, and to all those who were injured in or traumatized by the massacre," she wrote. "It looks as if you are willing to use this horrific tragedy to court the votes of those most virulently opposed to fairness and equality, while increasing the anguish of those who still struggle daily to recover from this violent event."
Given the fact that her group was tangentially aware of a few of the speakers on the event's list, she said it was impossible that Rubio would have signed up for the event without knowing what he was getting himself into.
"He knows the political landscape," Duddy-Burke tells New Times. "He knows what these people represent. Even in the best reading of these people’s work, even if he sees them as standing up for religious liberty, the pushback from his constituents should have woken him up to what this represents."
This week, Donald Trump also announced he would attend the summit, but Duddy-Burke says her organization won't even bother trying to convert him.
"We felt like Senator Rubio might be someone actually able to hear us," she says. "We want to appeal to Senator Rubio's faith and values."