Beto O'Rourke, the former congressman from Texas and presidential hopeful, infuriated a swath of religious and conservative leaders with his response to a question from CNN's Don Lemon during a LGBTQ-focused town hall on Thursday night.
Lemon asked O'Rourke if religious institutions — schools, churches, or charities — should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage.
The presidential candidate answered "yes" to the applause of a Los Angeles crowd organized by the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest LGBTQ equality organization.
"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. "And 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."
The response from some conservatives was swift.
"Does your church preach the Gospel? Then Beto O'Rourke wants to take away its tax-exemption," wrote Hermain Cain, a former business executive and GOP presidential candidate.
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse called Beto's response an unconstitutional attack on churches, synagogues, and mosques.
“Last night, Beto O’Rourke said that churches, hospitals, and charities — folks who are serving their communities and loving their neighbors — should lose their tax-exempt status if their religious convictions don’t fall in line with his progressive politics," Sasse wrote in a statement posted to his office's website.
He went on, "This extreme intolerance is un-American. The whole point of the First Amendment is that, no matter who you love and where you worship, everyone is created with dignity and we don’t use government power to decide which religious beliefs are legitimate and which aren’t. This bigoted nonsense would target a lot of sincere Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Leaders from both political parties have a duty to flatly condemn this attack on very basic American freedoms.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Christian conservative policy organization Family Research Council, said of O'Rourke Friday morning, "He was going after your guns, now he's going after your God," according to the Washington Blade.
All states and the District of Columbia provide tax exemptions for religious institutions. In 1983, Bob Jones University had its tax-exempt status revoked for banning interracial dating, deeming it a violation of "fundamental public policy."
O'Rourke's campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt said the criticism was unwarranted.
"Beto was obviously referring to religious institutions who take discriminatory action," Hitt told ABC News in a statement. "The extreme right is distorting this for their own agenda.”
Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey who is also a Democratic candidate, was asked the same question by Lemon but did not answer the question directly. The other eight candidates on stage, excluding O'Rourke, were not asked the question.
“I’m not saying, because I know this is a long legal battle. I’m not dodging your question. I’m saying I believe fundamentally that discrimination is discrimination,” Booker said. “And if you are using your position to try to discriminate others, there must be consequences to that. And I will make sure to hold them accountable using the DOJ or whatever investigatory. You cannot discriminate."