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Obama Defends Rick Warren's Role At Inauguration

President-elect Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that Pastor Dr. Rick Warren will give the invocation at the inauguration has set off a firestorm of criticism from liberal and gay rights activists.

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
Warren is the best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life and other books, as well as the pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. He is known as a "new evangelical" who stresses issues like poverty and climate change alongside other traditional conservative Christian issues. He also hosted a forum at his church in August with both Mr. Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain.

His selection by Mr. Obama further cements his place as one of the nation's preeminent religious leaders and also is seen as a clear sign to reach out to evangelical and conservative voters who didn't support him in last month's election.

But it is Warren's strong opposition to abortion and particularly gay marriage which has many on the left up in arms over him being given such a prominent role in the inauguration.

The Human Rights Campaign, the largest homosexual rights organization in the U.S., sent a strident letter to Mr. Obama, urging him to reconsider and calling the invitation "a genuine blow."

"By inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table," says the letter by Joe Solmonese, president of the group. "We feel a deep level of disrespect when one of the architects and promoters of an anti-gay agenda is given the prominence and the pulpit of your historic nomination."

The letter takes particular issue with Warren's support of Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage and also tries to tie Warren to Dr. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family and a vocal leader in the social conservative community.

"Rev. Warren cannot name a single theological issue that he and vehemently, anti-gay theologian James Dobson disagree on," Solmonese says. (You can read the full letter here)

"It's a huge mistake," California gay rights activist Rick Jacobs told the Politico. "Can you imagine if he had a man of God doing the invocation who had deliberately said that Jews are not going to be saved and therefore should be excluded from what's going on in America? People would be up in arms."

Gay rights groups were not the only ones on the left opposed to Warren's inclusion in the inauguration.

Kathryn Kolbert, president of the liberal group People For the American Way, called giving Warren this honor a "grave disappointment"

"The sad truth is that this decision further elevates someone who has in recent weeks actively promoted legalized discrimination and denigrated the lives and relationships of millions of Americans," Kolbert said. (Read the full statement.>)

In The Nation, Sarah Posner wrote the following: "Obama had thousands of clergy to choose from, and the choice of Warren is not only a slap in the face to progressive ministers toiling on the front lines of advocacy and service but a bow to the continuing influence of the religious right in American politics."

"Warren represents the absolute worst of the Democrats' religious outreach, a right-winger masquerading as a do-gooder anointed as the arbiter of what it means to be faithful," she added. (Read the full column.>)

Mr. Obama himself responded to the growing controversy when prompted by a question during a news conference today designed to announce a trio of financial regulators. The president-elect stressed that he is a "fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans," but said it was also important for Americans to come together despite disagreements on social issues.

Mr. Obama said the inauguration would include people with a wide variety of viewpoints represented and "that's how it should be."

He also pointed out that he was invited by Warren a few years ago to speak at his church, despite his disagreement with Warren on those issues. "That dialogue is part of what my campaign has been about," he added.

Also In Hotsheet: Read more about Mr. Obama's relationship with the gay community from CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder.

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