(AP) Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told faith leaders in Orlando on Friday that they must love LGBT people and accept them into the church, even if the pastors stay firm in their belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
Rubio delivered his address the day after protesters condemned his plans to speak to the group, saying many of the speakers at the Pastors & Pews conference have been notoriously anti-gay.
But Rubio urged the gathering to drop their judgments of the LGBT community.
"To love our neighbors we must abandon a spirit of judgment. Do not judge, or you will be judged,'' Rubio said. "Abandoning judgment and loving our LGBT neighbors is not a betrayal of what the Bible teaches, it is a fulfillment of it. Jesus showed us how to do this. Jesus showed us that we do not have to endorse what people do in order to accept them for who they are: children of a loving and merciful God.''
Rubio, who is seeking re-election after a failed presidential run, said American history is marred by the discrimination and rejection of gays and lesbians and that it was not long ago that slurs were an acceptable part of speech.
"We must recognize that many have experienced, sometimes, severe condemnation and judgment from some Christians. They have heard some say that the reason God will bring condemnation on America is because of them, as if somehow God was willing to put up with adultery and gluttony and greed and pride, but now this is the last straw,'' Rubio said.
His remarks came two months to the day after a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub just miles from the conference. Rubio told the group he attended a prayer service for the victims and spoke to gays and lesbians afterward. He said some told him it was the first time they'd entered a church in years and others said it was their first experience with Christianity. He told the pastors that LGBT people should be welcomed into churches.
"Many in that community deeply desire to come to Christ, but they do not because they fear they will be shunned and rejected by some,'' Rubio said. "If any of us, myself included, in any way, have ever made anyone feel that Christianity wants nothing to do with them, then I believe deeply that we have failed deeply to represent our Lord Jesus Christ, who time and again went out of his way to reach out to the marginalized and to the forgotten of his time.''
The speech wasn't warmly received by Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, a group fighting discrimination against LGBT people.
"These words ring hollow from a man who has made the world less safe for LGBT and our families. He has opposed basic legal protections and today he shared a stage with people who have dehumanized us,'' she said in an email. "We do not need thoughts and prayers when he could act right now to secure legal protections and support common sense gun laws that keep weapons of mass murder out of the hands of hate fueled madmen.''
Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy, who is running for Rubio's seat, criticized Rubio for even appearing at the event, which Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump spoke at Thursday.
"For Florida's senator to stand alongside these homophobic leaders and his bigoted candidate for President is a disgrace,'' Murphy said in a statement emailed by a campaign spokeswoman.