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When Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) released 10 years of his tax returns last month, the documents showed that he made the bulk of his money from speaking engagements ― $1.7 million while he was mayor of Newark between 2008 and 2013.
But on Aug. 11, 2011, Booker spoke at the Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek, a megachurch located outside Chicago that has a history of supporting policies that discriminate against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
Booker spoke of the challenges he had faced, about how to rise and overcome adversity. He encouraged people to stand up with honor, dignity, courage and love.
“But before you tell me what you have to say and how you pray, show me first in how you choose to live and give,” he said. “Because who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear one thing you say. Let us now stand up.”
(Watch the full speech here.)
Booker has long been a champion of LGBTQ rights. As far back as 1992, when he was a student at Stanford University, Booker wrote about embracing acceptance for gay people. In 2013, he presided over one of New Jersey’s first same-sex weddings. Until that point, he had refused to officiate any weddings until LGBTQ couples had the right to marry.
And in 2011, the same year he spoke at Willow Creek, Booker appeared in a video for the Human Rights Campaign speaking up for marriage equality, which was not yet legal in his state.
On Monday, Booker tweeted that he would not be speaking at the Family Leader summit, an Iowa gathering put on by a group that has been outspoken in its anti-LGBTQ views. He said he couldn’t go to an event “put on by an organization that preaches bigotry and sows hate against the LGBTQ community.” Other Democratic presidential candidates are also skipping it.
Willow Creek is not as far right as Family Leader. But for years, it partnered with Exodus International, an organization that practiced conversion therapy, a medically discredited practice attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“These positions of Willow Creek were well-known. There’s no excuse for Booker or anyone to be going there, even then,” said an LGBTQ activist who expressed disappointment upon hearing that Booker spoke at the church. The activist has spoken out on Willow Creek and asked to remain anonymous because of a fear of harassment.
Booker spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said, “At the time Cory spoke at the leadership summit, he was not aware of the host’s anti-LGBTQ sentiments and never would have agreed to doing the speech had he known.”
“From standing up for same-sex couples by refusing to officiate wedding ceremonies as Newark mayor until all were legally allowed to marry to leading the fight for the Equality Act in the Senate, throughout his career, Cory has been an ally of the LGBTQ community,” she added.
Willow Creek ended its Exodus partnership in 2009, although that didn’t become public until two months before Booker spoke at the church’s Global Leadership Summit. An official at Willow Creek emphasized that the decision was not a shift in ideology, but one simply of “reviewing and clarifying some of our affiliations.”
Even beyond its Exodus partnership, Willow Creek has not embraced LGBTQ equality. While members of the community are part of the congregation, the church has policies and stances that discriminate.
“Willow is not a church whose heels are dug in to that they’re going to be actively preaching against same-sex relationships or trans people. They would not do that,” said Matthew Vines, founder of The Reformation Project, a group that encourages churches to become LGBTQ-affirming. “But they do discriminate.”
Vines said Willow Creek is not affirming of same-sex relationships or transgender people, and they have policies in place that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in hiring, marrying and leadership roles.
“There are openly LGBTQ people who go to Willow Creek and like it. It’s not like you’re a gay couple and you show up and you get met with dirty looks or something. You could find plenty of people at the church who are themselves affirming,” he said. “But if you think you’re going to go and be treated no differently than anybody else would be, you’ll find a number of barriers to that the more that you try to get involved and engaged in the community.”
Howard Schultz, who is toying with a presidential run, was also set to speak at the Global Leadership Summit in 2011, when he was head of Starbucks. An online petition called out Schultz for agreeing to speak there, saying Starbucks needed to “denounce the anti-gay views” of the church.
The day before the conference was set to begin, on Aug. 10, Schultz pulled out as a speaker.
Michelle Rhee ― who once served as chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools and, like Booker, was a supporter of school choice ― also gave a speech at the summit and faced some pushback. Education reform advocates often found common cause with Christian organizations on the issue of charter schools.
Willow Creek’s summit has attracted other high-profile celebrities over the years, including Bono, former President Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
On the same day Booker spoke at the summit, the Rev. Bill Hybels, who was head of Willow Creek, attempted to clarify the church’s stance on LGBTQ issues. Essentially, he said, someone can be LGBTQ, but they can’t have a relationship expressing that part of their identity.
“We challenge homosexuals and heterosexuals to live out the sexual ethics taught in Scriptures, which encourage sexual expression between a man and a woman in the context of marriage,” said Hybels, adding that the Bible prescribes “sexual abstinence and purity for everyone else.”
Last year, Hybels announced his “retirement” after multiple women spoke out that he had sexually harassed them. Much of Willow Creek’s leadership has also left in the fallout.
Willow Creek did not return a request for comment on its policies.