LGBT groups criticize president-elect for picking Prop 8 supporter Rick Warren to deliver invocation at inauguration ceremony
WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama on Thursday, Dec. 18 defended his choice of a popular evangelical minister to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, rejecting criticism that it slights gays.
The selection of Pastor Rick Warren brought objections from gay rights advocates, many of whom strongly supported Obama during the election campaign. The advocates are angry over Warren’s backing of a California ballot initiative banning gay marriage. That measure was approved by voters last month.
But Obama told reporters in Chicago that America needs to "come together," even when there’s disagreement on social issues. “That dialogue is part of what my campaign is all about,” he said.
Obama also said he’s known to be a "fierce advocate for equality" for gays and lesbians, and will remain so.
Warren, a best-selling author and leader of a Southern California megachurch, is one of a new breed of evangelicals who stress the need for action on social issues — such as reducing poverty and protecting the environment — alongside traditional theological themes.
But the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT equality group, said Warren’s opposition to gay marriage is a sign of intolerance.
"We feel a deep level of disrespect when one of the architects and promoters of an anti-gay agenda is given the prominence and the pulpit of your historic nomination," the group said in a letter to Obama on Wednesday, Dec. 17, asking him to reconsider. "By inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table."
Obama’s selection of Warren, who’s also pro-life, is seen as a signal to religious conservatives that the president-elect will listen to their views. During the campaign, Warren interviewed Obama and Republican John McCain in a widely watched television program that focused on religious concerns.
"[It's] shrewd politics, but if anyone is under any illusion that Obama is interested in advancing gay equality, they should probably sober up now," influential gay blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote on the Atlantic’s Web site Wednesday.
Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglas defended the choice of Warren in an interview with CNN.
"This is going to be the most inclusive, open, accessible inauguration in American history," Douglas told CNN. "The president-elect certainly disagrees with him on [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] issues. But it has always been his goal to find common ground with people with whom you may disagree on some issues."
Warren has a practice of not endorsing candidates or political parties, but he wrote in a church newsletter in October that gay marriage is not a political issue but "a moral issue that God has spoken clearly about."
"For 5,000 years, every culture and every religion — not just Christianity — has defined marriage as a contract between men and women," Warren wrote. "There is no reason to change the universal, historical definition of marriage to appease 2 percent of our population."
Warren later told Beliefnet.com that his opposition to gay marriage was based in part on free speech concerns.
"There were all kinds of threats that if [Proposition 8] did not pass then any pastor could be considered doing hate speech if he shared his views that he didn’t think homosexuality was the most natural way for relationships, and that would be hate speech."
HRC wasn’t the only gay rights group to criticize Obama for the selection of Warren.
"President-elect Obama campaigned on a theme of inclusivity, yet the selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation is a direct affront to that very principle," Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said in a statement. "This was a divisive choice, and clearly not one that will help our country come together and heal. We urge President-elect Obama to withdraw his invitation to Rick Warren and instead select a faith leader who embraces fairness, equality and the ideals the president-elect himself has called the nation to uphold."
Chuck Wolfe, CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, tied the selection of Warren to the Presidential Appointments Project, a joint effort of 12 national LGBT groups to ensure LGBT Americans get a share of the thousands of presidential appointments Barack Obama will make over the course of his administration.
"Rick Warren has caused the LGBT community great pain, so the report today that he has been invited to offer the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration is unsettling news," Wolfe said. "For more than a year we have coordinated a community-wide effort to facilitate the inclusion of LGBT Americans at the highest levels of decision-making in Washington. The decision to invite such a controversial figure to this historic event leads me to question whether any LGBT individuals were consulted, and highlights the importance of building an administration that includes qualified LGBT Americans who are ready to serve their country."
Wolfe expressed further disappointment in a statement Thursday after it became clear that Mary Beth Maxwell, a candidate for Labor Secretary, would not become the first openly gay presidential cabinet member. The Associated Press reported that Obama instead would select Rep. Hilda Solis for the post.
"It’s now clear that President Obama’s top appointees will gather in a Cabinet Room that does not reflect the living rooms, board rooms or rooms of worship across this country. Openly LGBT people are accepted and involved in nearly all aspects of American life, but they still will not have a place at the table at the highest reaches of their government," Wolfe said. "Floating names is not enough.
We expect President-elect Obama to live up to his word to appoint a diverse administration. Our community is ready to help lead this country."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 19, 2008.