The evangelical pastor chosen to give the benediction at President Barack Obama's inauguration withdrew from the ceremony Thursday after remarks surfaced that he made two decades ago condemning the gay rights movement.
The Rev. Louie Giglio of Passion City Church in Atlanta said in a statement he withdrew because it was likely that the "prayer I would offer will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration."
Addie Whisenant, a spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said the committee had chosen Giglio because of his work to end human trafficking. Giglio organizes the Passion evangelical conferences that draw tens of thousands of young people.
"We were not aware of Pastor Giglio's past comments at the time of his selection and they don't reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this inaugural," Whisenant said in a statement.
The liberal website ThinkProgress posted audio of the sermon Wednesday. In the talk, which the pastor said he gave 15 or 20 years ago, Giglio cited Scripture and called same-sex relationships sinful and an abomination. He warned congregants about what he called the "aggressive agenda" for acceptance of the "homosexual lifestyle." And he recommended the writings of an advocate for therapy that aims to convert gays and lesbians into heterosexuals. Repeatedly in the sermon, Giglio urged congregants to welcome gays and lesbians to the church and said God loves them.
"Speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past 15 years," Giglio said, in announcing he would withdraw. He framed the conflict over his participation as a question of religious freedom.
"The issue of homosexuality ... is one of the most difficult our nation will navigate," he wrote on his church blog. "However, individuals' rights of freedom, and the collective right to hold differing views on any subject is a critical balance we, as a people, must recover and preserve."
Obama's inaugural planners have put an emphasis on reflecting diversity in the festivities, including the participation of conservative Christians and gay Americans. Obama personally selected Richard Blanco, whose work explores his experience as a Cuban-American gay man, as the inaugural poet. And the Lesbian and Gay Band Association of St. Louis was one of the first selections to march in the inaugural parade.
An inaugural official said the Presidential Inaugural Committee vetted Giglio. But their statement said they didn't know about that particular sermon. Whisenant said the committee was considering others to deliver the benediction at the Jan. 21 event.
Ross Murray, the faith program director for the gay advocacy group GLAAD, urged the committee to choose someone for the role who reflects "the growing sentiment in the U.S. and in faith communities that LGBT people are full and equal parts of society."
Several evangelical leaders called such demands evidence of liberal intolerance.
"Some are wondering if those who hold to traditional evangelical beliefs on homosexuality are no longer welcome in the public square," wrote Ed Stetzer, head of the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, on his blog.
Obama faced a similar uproar in 2009, when he chose prominent pastor Rick Warren to give the inaugural benediction as an olive branch to evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote Republican. Warren had compared gay relationships to incest and pedophilia. He had also urged congregants at his Saddleback Church in California to support the Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage on the 2008 state ballot. Despite pressure from gay rights advocates for Warren to bow out, the pastor gave the benediction.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed from Washington.