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O’Rourke says churches against gay marriage should lose tax benefits, draws backlash

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Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke said Thursday that churches and other religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status, taking the Democratic presidential debate into uncharted — and controversial — territory.

The Texas Democrat was asked about the concept by CNN anchor Don Lemon at a 2020 candidates’ forum on LGBTQ issues co-hosted by the network and Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

“Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities should they lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?” Lemon asked.

“Yes,” O’Rourke replied. “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. And so as president, we are going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

O’Rourke appeared to go dramatically further than the existing political and legal conversation over LGBTQ rights and religious discrimination, which has largely centered on questions of whether private businesses can decline services to customers or refuse to hire or maintain employees on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status. Other recent cases have been concerned with the basis on which religious schools can hire or fire staff.

The comments drew applause at the event, but quickly circulated among conservative commentators and drew condemnation from activists that have defended religious institutions in related legal fights.

“Beto O’Rourke’s threat is a direct affront to the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty,” Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute, said in a statement.

In another statement, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska called O’Rourke’s remarks “bigoted nonsense” that “would target a lot of sincere Christians, Jews, and Muslims.”

“This extreme intolerance is un-American,” Sasse added.

In an e-mail, O’Rourke spokeswoman Aleigha Cavalier suggested the candidate had been misinterpreted, but did not elaborate on his position in detail.

“Of course, Beto was referring to religious institutions who take discriminatory action,” she said. “The extreme right is distorting this for their own agenda.”

Cavalier added that O’Rourke defined discriminatory action as “denying public accommodation” on the basis of gender, sexuality, or marriage.

A Human Rights Campaign Foundation spokesman said the group does not have a formal position on the issue O’Rourke raised.

It’s unlikely that efforts to end tax-exempt status for many religious organizations on the basis of opposition to same-sex marriage would pass legal muster given recent precedent upholding a variety of constitutional protections for churches, clergy and religious rituals.

Writing the Supreme Court majority opinion legalizing gay marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy emphasized that “religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”

Marcia McCormick, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law, said there are some legal distinctions between belief and actions and between religiously affiliated institutions like colleges, which courts have ruled cannot discriminate on the basis of race, and churches, which have broader rights.

“There is kind of a continuum,” she said. “Religious beliefs alone about religion are the most protected, secular kinds of actions are least protected.”

Michael Wear, who led faith outreach efforts for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, warned that O’Rourke was risking alienating religious voters across the ideological and denominational spectrum.

“If that isn’t a religious freedom violation, I don’t know what is,” he said. “It’s so facially unconstitutional that it’s hard for people to believe there isn’t ill will involved in even suggesting it.”

While O’Rourke stood out in last night’s forum, Wear said he was concerned that Democrats at the event more broadly failed to acknowledge and address concerns religious voters might have about how new anti-discrimination measures might affect their communities.

“So many of these candidates are running saying they’ll be president of all Americans,” he said. “They’re going to have to reconcile that with how they approached some of these issues last night.”



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Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards wins re-election in blow to Trump

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WASHINGTON — Democrat John Bel Edwards narrowly won a second term as governor of Louisiana, beating Republican challenger Eddie Rispone by 1.4 percentage points and delivering another blow in off-cycle elections to President Donald Trump.

“Our shared love for Louisiana is always more important than the partisan differences that sometimes divide us,” Edwards said as he celebrated his victory with supporters.

“And as for the president, God bless his heart,” Edwards continued.

Edwards was up by over 19,000 votes with 96 percent of precincts reporting Saturday night, according to The Associated Press.

“I am disappointed, if I am being very honest,” Rispone said in his concession speech.

“By the way, can we give President Trump a round of applause? That man loves America, and he loves Louisiana. He came down here three times specifically to try and help us,” Rispone added.

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Edwards’ victory in a state that Trump carried by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016 highlights the limits of nationalizing local races. Rispone, a wealthy businessman and longtime Republican donor, tied himself to Trump. He often railed against illegal immigrants and portrayed Edwards as a “liberal, socialist-leaning governor.”

But Edwards, a conservative Democrat, managed to remain fairly popular by frequently breaking with national Democrats. He signed into law one of the most restrictive abortion bills in the country, favored gun rights and touted his willingness to work with Republicans, including Trump.

Edwards also earned a level of goodwill in his first term for his focus on local issues, such as ending the budget crisis created by his predecessor and expanding Medicaid.

Kentucky elected Attorney General Andy Beshear over Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, despite Trump’s campaign efforts in the state.

Edwards was a top target for the GOP as the Republican National Committee spent $2 million to defeat him and Trump visited the state three times in five weeks to support Rispone.

Before the polls closed Saturday, Trump tweeted multiple times encouraging voters to support Rispone.

Edwards narrowly missed the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright win in the October jungle primary, in which every candidate runs against one another on the same ballot regardless of party. He took 46 percent of the vote, Rispone 27 percent and Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham about 23 percent.

Although Abraham endorsed and campaigned for Rispone in the runoff, it was not enough to push him over the finish line.

Edwards was elected in 2015 in what many viewed as a fluke election owing to a flawed Republican opponent mired in a prostitution scandal.

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Trump’s surprise hospital visit was routine, White House doctor says

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It’s wasn’t any “urgent or acute issues” that sent President Donald Trump to the hospital over the weekend, the White House physician said Monday. It was for a routine interim checkup, he said, echoing comments from the president and his team.

The disclosure came amid speculation surrounding Trump’s visit Sunday to Walter Reed Medical Center, which was not announced ahead of time.

Unlike the president’s previous two physicals, which came with advance notice and were included on his public schedule, Sunday’s visit was announced only in a tweet. Trump said he’d begun “phase one” of his yearly physical — though his last physical was in February.

On Monday, the physician, Sean Conley, said in a memo that “scheduling uncertainties” had kept the visit off the record.

Trump’s visit with Conley lasted an hour, the doctor said. Then the president toured the hospital and spoke with the family of a soldier undergoing surgery, Conley said.

“Despite some of the speculation, the president has not had any chest pain,” Conley said, adding that Trump did not undergo cardiac or neurologic evaluations.

Conley shared the results of Trump’s cholesterol test and said he would include the president’s other labs and exams in next year’s report.



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Russian web trolls boo Biden, often boost Gabbard, report finds

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WASHINGTON — Among Democrats running for president, Tulsi Gabbard is popular with Russian propagandists, while Joe Biden draws the most criticism, according to a new analysis.

Mentions of Gabbard, a Hawaii congresswoman, by English-language Russian propaganda outlets were 46 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable, a research team from the Foreign Policy Research Institute found after analyzing more than 1,700 news stories put out by Sputnik and RT. She was the only Democratic candidate with more favorable than unfavorable mentions.

References to Biden, by contrast, were 3 percent favorable and 53 percent unfavorable. The rest were neutral.

For Russia thus far, Biden is to 2020 what Hilary Clinton was to 2016, the researchers found.

“When I watched Russian state-sponsored content and social media trolling headed into election 2016, it was overwhelmingly negative toward Hillary Clinton. The same could be said today of former Vice President Biden,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and NBC News contributor who led the effort.

U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard greets supporters after filing her declaration of candidacy papers to appear on the 2020 New Hampshire primary election ballot at the State House in Concord, N.H. on Nov. 5, 2019.Mike Segar / Reuters

“RT and Sputnik content in total volume is exceptionally higher for Vice President Biden, more so than normal U.S. election coverage. …Russia often amplifies President Trump’s disparagement of Biden, and this adds to the negative coverage overall.”

For its report, the non-partisan Foreign Policy Research Institute’s (FPRI) Foreign Influence Election 2020 Project assembled a research team to analyze what Kremlin state-sponsored news outlets say about the 2020 U.S. election and the presidential candidates.

The team analyzed 1,711 Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News articles from January 1 to November 10, 2019 that pertained to the 2020 presidential election, including 705 RT stories and 1,006 Sputnik News stories.

Those 1,711 stories hosted 2,772 mentions of either the president, Republican candidates or Democratic candidates for president in 2020.

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More than half of those mentions referenced President Donald Trump, which the team said will be analyzed in a separate upcoming release. Mentions were evaluated as “neutral,” “favorable” of the candidate or “unfavorable” of the candidate.

The team also logged an additional 319 mentions of former presidents and presidential candidates, which will be analyzed later, they said.

Why Gabbard?

There are a number of reasons many Russian propagandists express support for Gabbard, Watts said.

“Gabbard is saying everything Russia wants Americans to hear,” he said. “She’s a U.S. Army officer, and combat veteran claiming — incorrectly — that the U.S. backs al Qaeda. She calls the U.S. an imperialist power that should withdraw from the world. Her anti-war stance as a military member and shaming of U.S. establishment leaders is a wonderful vehicle for the Kremlin to divide the political left and pit populists against the establishment.”

Gabbard spokesman Mark Bergman responded in a statement to NBC News: “The warmongering foreign policy establishment in the media has been using this same smear since the day Congresswoman Gabbard announced her candidacy. This is nothing new. As the first female combat veteran ever to run for the presidency, the American people know that Tulsi has always and will always fight for the interests of the American people.”

NBC News reported in February that Gabbard was a favorite among English language Russian propaganda sites. On Twitter, Gabbard accused NBC of seeking to “to smear any adversary of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party — whether on the left or the right — as a stooge or asset of the Kremlin.'”

In another tweet, Gabbard added, “As commander-in-chief, I will work to end the new cold war, nuclear arms race and slide into nuclear war. That is why the neocon/neolib warmongers will do anything to stop me.”

Mike Carpenter, a former Pentagon official and Russia expert who advises the Biden campaign informally, told NBC News the Russians “clearly see Biden as a voice that has stood up to Russian aggression. Clearly they want to take Biden down. I think their preferred candidate is Donald Trump but they are willing to support especially candidates on the far left.”

Carpenter said Russian propagandists have helped fuel two of the conspiracy theories behind the current impeachment investigation, namely that Ukraine had a role in hacking the Democrats in 2016 and that Biden acted improperly when he carried out U.S. policy in helping secure the removal of a prosecutor the State Department believed was corrupt.

“I see Russia as at a minimum playing an important role to propagate these conspiracies,” he said.

Russian propaganda mentions of the other Democratic candidates have been mostly neutral, the study found, although the sites have begun to criticize Elizabeth Warren as she has risen in the polls.

After the breadth of Russian influence operations during the 2016 election became clear, researchers began to try to track Russian bots and trolls on Twitter and other social media platforms.

In response, experts say, Russian and other foreign actors have taken steps to further obscure and disguise their activity, making it extremely difficult to track foreign bots and trolls. One measurement tool, a web site known as Hamilton 68 hosted by the German Marshall Fund, changed its focus to monitor overt Russian state-funded media, just as the Foreign Policy Research Institute is doing.

“Much of the bot and troll activity out there is unattributed,” Watts said. “We don’t know what is Russian or not Russian, and when researchers mistakenly attribute the free speech of Americans as a secret Russian bot, it degrades electorate confidence in researchers’ ability to detect Russian influence or that it even exists. Improper attribution also makes Russia seem more powerful than they really are.”

Therefore, Watts said, it makes sense to pay close attention to what the Russians and other foreign governments are saying in the open, in state-funded media.

“If you read Russia, Iran and China’s propaganda, they’ll tell you where to start digging,” he said.



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