Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) scolded Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke on Wednesday for supporting a plan to strip religious institutions of their tax-exempt status if they do not officially recognize same-sex marriage.
“Last week, a former member of Congress didn’t blink an eye — a former member of Congress now running for President — didn’t blink an eye when he announced that he would strip religious institutions — colleges, churches, and other not-for-profit service organizations — he would strip them of their tax-exempt status if they don’t agree with his political positions,” Sasse said while speaking on the Senate floor. “That’s a pretty major departure from what America is and what we usually talk about in this body.”
“So, we should pause, and we should call that what it is. That is extreme intolerance, it is extreme bigotry, and it’s profoundly unAmerican,” he continued. “The whole point of America is the First Amendment, and the whole point of the First Amendment is that no matter who you love, and no matter how you worship, we believe in America that everyone, everyone is created with dignity.”
While Sasse refrained from directly naming the person he was referring to, O’Rourke notably received widespread backlash after he revealed during CNN’s LGBTQ town hall event earlier in October that he would penalize religious institutions that adhere to their own religious texts by denying them tax exemptions under federal law.
“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us,” O’Rourke said at the time. “So as president, we’re going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”
Following the town hall, the Nebraska lawmaker swiftly issued a statement condemning the “bigoted nonsense,” and called on leaders from both parties to do the same. Sasse took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to introduce a resolution in response to O’Rourke, which would put every member of Congress on record on whether or not they “affirm the First Amendment and, in particular, the free exercise of religion and the free assembly clauses.”
“This is a fundamental American tenet. It’s why this country was founded. And because we are all created with dignity, none of us have the right to dictate the conscience commitments of other people,” Sasse said. “The freedom of the conscience is a fundamental American belief and thankfully politicians have no business policing that.”
“At the end of the day, there are really just two kinds of societies: there are societies that are about force and power, and there are societies that are about persuasion, about assembly, and about love,” he continued. “For more than 230 years, we’ve decided in this country that we’re the latter. We’re a community of persuasion, not primarily a community of power and force. In America we don’t think the center of life is defined by government. We think the frame of life is defined by government.”
Sasse further explained that the First Amendment of the Constitution consists of five entwined freedoms — religion, speech, press, assembly, and protest — which serve as the foundation of America.
“The five freedoms are interconnected, interdependent, and all in that same amendment — the First Amendment — for a reason,” Sasse said. “These are the rights of conscience that belong together, and they cannot be taken or policed by government.”
“So that means that if a Texas politician pandering for a sound bite decides to make a bold-faced threat against Muslims, Jews, and Christians, all Americans from every faith and every walk of life, we have an obligation to come together and to defend our freedoms,” he continued. “So we should do that.”
“I don’t care what some nitwit said on CNN last week to satisfy his fringy base and try to get a sound bite in a presidential debate,” Sasse added. “The American people ought to know that this body stands for the historic First Amendment. That’s what we all took an oath to uphold and to defend, and that’s what we ought to vote to affirm again.”