Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign stop, Feb. 7, 2016, in Hudson, N.H.
Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

Marco Rubio challenged on opposition to marriage equality

Updated

In a fairly unusual confrontation for this campaign cycle so far, a New Hampshire voter on Monday directly challenged Sen. Marco Rubio over his opposition to same-sex marriage, asking the Republican presidential candidate why he wanted to “put [him] back in the closet.”

The exchange took place at the Puritan Backroom Restaurant in Manchester, where Rubio stopped to talk to voters a day before the first-in-the-nation primary.

“So Marco, being a gay man, why do you want to put me back in the closet?” asked Timothy Kierstead, who was dining at the restaurant. Rubio came over to shake his hand, but the woman sitting next to Kierstead appeared to refuse.

“I don’t,” Rubio replied. “You can live anywhere you want. I just believe marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Kierstead wasn’t satisfied, pointing out that Rubio’s belief in man-woman marriage stems from his religion. (Rubio identifies as Catholic, was once a Mormon, and now regularly attends services at an evangelical Protestant megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.) “You separate church and state,” he said. “You’re not separating it due to I’m a gay man.”

Rubio told him that wasn’t true and that he wasn’t planning on establishing an official religion. But, he added, “in America, [religion] is a big part of our heritage.”

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“I’m already married,” Kierstead said. “Have been for a long time. And you want to say we don’t matter.”

Rubio, moving his son away, repeated: “No, I just believe marriage is between one man and one woman.”

“But that’s your belief, not half the country,” said Kierstead.

Perhaps wary of saying the same thing too many times following Saturday’s Republican debate, during which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie skewered Rubio for his “memorized 25-second speech,” the Florida senator pivoted to a states’ rights defense of traditional marriage. “I think that’s what the law should be, and if you don’t agree, you should have the law changed by the legislature,” he said. 

Again, Kierstead pushed back. “The law already has been changed,” he said, referring to a June Supreme Court decision that made marriage equality the law of the land.

“I respect your view,” Rubio said finally as he began to walk away.

“Typical politician,” Kierstead called after him. “Walk away when you got something.”

Rubio is far from the only Republican presidential candidate to oppose marriage equality. Quite the opposite, in fact – all of them do, albeit with various levels of intensity. Nevertheless, such exchanges have been few and far between in this election. That could all change, however, as the field continues to winnow and the surviving candidates move on to states with fewer social conservatives and religious voters. Rubio is often touted as the GOP’s best hope of appealing to a younger, more diverse general electorate. But on social issues – like abortion and LGBT rights – he’s as conservative as they come.

RELATED: Rubio faces new risks following debate debacle

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network late last year, Rubio told host David Brody he would not only appoint Supreme Court justices who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion, but also reverse executive orders President Obama signed last year that ban discrimination against LGBT employees of federal contractors and the U.S. government. Both actions would likely cost him popularity points with millennials, 79 percent of whom said they favored same-sex marriage in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center

Yet Rubio seems unconcerned his positions on social issues might cost him younger voters. During Saturday’s ABC News debate, he said he didn’t accept the idea that believing in traditional marriage “makes you a bigot or a hater.”

“It means that you believe that this institution that’s been around for millennia is an important cornerstone of society,” said Rubio. “I respect people that believe differently. But I believe deeply that marriage should be between one man and one woman.”

The exchange with Kierstead wasn’t Rubio’s only awkward moment on Monday involving LGBT issues. He also talked briefly with a 92-year-old woman in the restaurant about the marital status and sexual orientation of his former rival Sen. Lindsey Graham, who dropped out of the presidential race in December.

“He’s a bachelor, right?” the woman asked.

“He is,” confirmed Rubio.

“Is he gay?” she asked.

“No,” Rubio said with a laugh.

On the ground with the New Hampshire primary
Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders was the projected winner in the New Hampshire primary, the nation’s first of the 2016 presidential race, on Tuesday,

Gay Rights and Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio challenged on opposition to marriage equality

Updated