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Republican candidates throw red meat at South Carolina evangelicals

“There are people of faith who believe marriage is between one man and woman… who are being prosecuted,” said Ben Carson Friday in Greenville, South Carolina.
Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks to the Carolina Values Summit at Winthrop University, Feb. 11, 2016, in Rock Hill, S.C. (Photo by John Bazemore/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks to the Carolina Values Summit at Winthrop University, Feb. 11, 2016, in Rock Hill, S.C.

Republican presidential candidates threw red meat at South Carolina’s powerful evangelical voting bloc Friday, successively denouncing the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality and vowing to protect Americans who oppose same-sex nuptials on religious grounds.

The candidates all began their remarks at the Faith and Family Presidential Forum in Greenville, South Carolina, by talking about the role faith plays in their lives before moving onto a robust charge against constitutional separation of church and state — a phrase first used by Thomas Jefferson and subsequently repeated by the U.S. Supreme Court as an interpretation of the First Amendment.

“That phraseology is not from the Constitution,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio of the “separation” concept. “I”m not a gambler but I’d take that bet.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush struck a similar note in his remarks an hour earlier. “For anybody to suggest that we have to keep it in our church… I think is wrong and misses the whole point of the American experience.”

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The idea of being able to practice one’s faith outside of church is frequently cited by so-called “religious freedom” advocates, who believe religious business owners and, in some cases, government employees have the right to turn away same-sex couples hoping to marry. Every Republican presidential candidate speaking Friday vowed to expand this understanding of religious freedom in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing nationwide marriage equality.

Speaking first before the crowd of more than 2,000, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson called the ruling a “real problem.”

“Everybody, according to our Constitution, should be treated equally and should have the same rights. But nobody gets extra rights. Nobody gets the right to redefine everything for everyone else and then make them conform to that,” Carson said of the 2015 Obergefell decision, which made marriage equality the law of the land.

“There are people of faith who believe marriage is between one man and woman … who are being prosecuted,” he continued. “We cannot tolerate that.”

The event marked an important opportunity for the four candidates on the docket — including Carson, Bush, Rubio, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — to court evangelical voters one day before the CBS Republican presidential debate in Greenville, South Carolina, and eight days before the first-in-the-South GOP primary, in which social conservatives and religious voters play an outsize role. In 2012, 65 percent of South Carolina primary voters said they identified as evangelical Christians, according to exit polls.

For both Carson and Cruz, Friday’s event marked the second time this campaign cycle that the candidates have spoken at Bob Jones University — a school that became a flash point in the 2000 Republican presidential primary over its longstanding ban on interracial dating and history of anti-Catholicism. Bob Jones University dropped the controversial dating ban shortly after George W. Bush came under fire from his rivals for speaking there without criticizing the school’s policies. It still has numerous strict rules on the books, such as a prohibition on “physical contact between unmarried men and women” and a ban on clothing labels “that glorify the lustful spirit of our age in their advertising.”

If elected, Carson, Bush, and Rubio all said Friday they would immediately throw their weight behind the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) — a bill that would prohibit the federal government from taking “any discriminatory action” against a person who acts in accordance with a religious opposition to same-sex marriage or premarital sex. FADA defines “person” very broadly to include for-profit organizations, and “discriminatory action” as the revocation of tax-exempt status or the termination of federal contracts.

The issue is especially relevant for anyone affiliated with Bob Jones University, which lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 after failing to convince the Supreme Court that the IRS could not punish schools that "engage in racial discrimination on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.” That case galvanized the religious right and is now often cited in warnings about what may happen to institutions that discriminate against same-sex couples on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.

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"Embedded in [the Obergefell] decision,” Bush said Friday, is the danger that “people of faith might lose their tax exempt status." Many legal scholars disagree, however, noting that the principle in the Bob Jones decision has never been extended to strip all-women’s colleges of their tax-exempt statuses. It would, therefore, be unlikely for the IRS to go after churches and other institutions that discriminate based on sexual orientation.

In line with their attacks on Obergefell, the candidates also all stressed the importance of appointing conservative Supreme Court justices to the bench. Rubio said he wished the court was made up of nine justices like Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia — “instead of only two.” Carson, meanwhile, said lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court needed to be “reexamined.” Asked how he would select Supreme Court justices, Carson quoted Scripture: “By their fruits, you will know them.”

The event moderators played for each of the candidates one of several “sting” videos edited to show Planned Parenthood executives casually discussing the process of donating fetal tissue for medical research. (David Daleiden, who made and released the videos, was recently indicted by a Texas grand jury on felony charges.) After viewing the video, Rubio criticized Planned Parenthood’s “atrocious practices”; Bush said it made him “sick to [his] stomach”; and Carson called it “disgusting.”

“How can God bless a society that has no regard for human life and that is selling body parts? I mean, it is unbelievable,” said Carson. “It’s unbelievable.”