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Politics

Marco Rubio Walks Fine Line On LGBT Rights

The Florida senator spoke Tuesday of support for nondiscrimination and allowing states to grant same-sex couples marriage rights. He still supports limiting marriage to one man and one woman, though, and did not commit to any action to advance LGBT equality.

Sen. Marco Rubio talks with BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013.

WASHINGTON — In extensive comments on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday avoided taking strong positions for or against — leaving his view on federal legislation unclear even as he expressed opposition to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying while renewing his support for keeping marriage between one man and one woman.

The Florida Republican often noted as a potential 2016 presidential candidate made the comments at BuzzFeed Brews Tuesday night, showing the complex position he and the Republican Party find themselves in as they look ahead and try to foresee where the party should be on LGBT issues come 2016 and beyond.

Rubio said he is “against discriminating against people,” but would not take a position on the longstanding legislation to address anti-LGBT discrimination, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). He also dodged taking a specific position on whether same-sex couples should receive protections under immigration law, despite his significant investment in immigration issues more broadly.

He also reiterated his opposition to a Federal Marriage Amendment banning gay couples from marrying anywhere in the country, echoing comments he made in May 2012, while maintaining his support for Florida’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying.

The comments, and the line he walked on the issues, were notable coming from a person eyeing 2016 from the vantage point of a party growing less certain of where to go on LGBT issues.

In discussing whether he believed same-sex couples should be included in immigration reform, of which he is playing a key role in the Senate, Rubio told BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, “If that issue becomes a central issue in the debate, it’s just going to make it harder to get it done.”

Asked if he had a strong view one way or another on the issue, Rubio said, “That goes to the core issue of marriage in general, and I think, increasingly, that’s an issue that states are deciding,” noting his “strong belief” in marriage being only between a man and a woman.

Although that answer could suggest that Rubio thinks a state’s decision whether to allow same-sex couples to marry should control whether they are treated as married for immigration purposes, the federal prohibition on recognizing same-sex couples’ marriages under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — which Rubio has supported in the past — doesn’t allow the federal government to acknowledge the states’ decisions. That could change, however, depending on the outcome of a pending Supreme Court case challenging that provision of DOMA.

Rubio echoed the arguments of those lawyers opposing DOMA in the courts, saying of the states, “I think that’s who’s always decided the definition of marriage.” He did not address, though, whether his answer meant that he opposes section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, the provision at issue in the Supreme Court case. A Rubio spokesman did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on that issue, although Rubio called the law “critical” back in March 2011.

At the Tuesday event, Smith asked if the comments meant that Rubio opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying.

“I’ve always been uncomfortable with a federal constitutional amendment on anything, particularly on that, because I think it steps on the rights of states to define marriage. I think that’s a two-way street, though. If states define marriage as between one man and one woman, if you’re going to say it belongs to the states, then you have to respect whatever decision they make,” Rubio said, noting that Florida amended its constitution to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying and that other states now allow same-sex couples to marry.

The Human Rights Campaign’s vice president, Fred Sainz, told BuzzFeed Wednesday that “Senator Rubio is right to oppose a federal constitutional amendment on marriage and respect the progress that many states have made in moving to marriage equality.” He added, though, that “[n]o state should enshrine discrimination against its citizens and deny them the ability to express their love and protect their families through marriage.”

Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a group advocating for gay couples’ marriage rights, also took issue with the latter part of Rubio’s remarks, telling BuzzFeed, “Florida’s different-sex restriction on the freedom to marry is no more acceptable — and no more constitutional — than the same-race restrictions Senator Rubio’s predecessors used to invoke ‘states’ rights’ to defend.”

Neither the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown nor a spokesman from the Family Research Council — two organizations that strongly support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex couples from marrying — responded Wednesday to BuzzFeed’s request for comment on Rubio’s remarks about marriage. (Just prior to the November 2012 election, Rubio recorded a call for NOM in support of marriage remaining limited to one man and one woman.)

Rubio himself, though, softened his opposition to same-sex couples’ marriage rights with general comments opposing discrimination, saying, “I’m against discriminating against people. I think the best people should be hired for jobs.”

Asked if that meant he supports ENDA, which would ban most private employers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, Rubio said, “I don’t have it in front of me, so I’d have to look at it and tell you.”

Although he did not cosponsor the bill in the 112th Congress, he said Tuesday of discrimination, “I’m not in favor of any of that, and I, quite frankly, don’t really care what people decide to do in the privacy of their lives.”

Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said that she was hopeful that such general support would lead to support for ENDA specifically.

“ENDA has become a mainstream issue supported by a decisive majority of Americans, including Floridians and a majority of Congress. We are very hopeful that Sen. Rubio would take such a reasonable, mainstream position,” Keisling told BuzzFeed.

Returning to his views on marriage, however, Rubio said, “I think we can disagree on that issue. I think what bothers me is if you disagree on one of these issues, people term that you’re a bigot or a hater, and I don’t think that’s fair either. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there that are, but that alone doesn’t make you that.”

CLARIFICATION: Information regarding Sen. Rubio’s prior support for the Defense of Marriage Act was added into the article after its initial publication.

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