Pete Buttigieg on Ellen: Pence should say he's 'changed his mind' and back legal protections for gay people

WASHINGTON – The faith-based debate on homosexuality between 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg and Vice President Mike Pence continues.

In a taped appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show"  that aired Friday, Buttigieg responded to Pence’s accusation that he criticized the vice president’s faith when he said the “Mike Pences” of the world should understand that he didn’t choose to be gay.

‘“I’m not critical of his faith; I’m critical of bad policies,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t have a problem with religion. I’m religious, too. I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people and especially in the LGBTQ community."

The high-profile back-and-forth between Buttigieg and Pence comes as Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has moved up into the top ranks of the crowded field of Democrats seeking the nomination. Buttigieg will officially kick off his campaign Sunday in an event at a former Studebaker factory that's been transformed into a technology center – an economic development project that Buttigieg worked on with Pence while Pence was the governor of Indiana. 

2020 Democrats:A guide to the candidates in the large field

Buttigieg vs. Pence:Tensions flare in 'long and complicated' relationship between Pete Buttigieg and Mike Pence

`A voice from the Christian left':Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator

In this July 3, 2013, file photo, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, center, talks with South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, right, as they cross the Jefferson Boulevard bridge during a fitness walk along the St. Joseph River in downtown South Bend, Ind.

Pence told CNN in an interview that aired Friday that he worked closely with Buttigieg and "considered him a friend."

"And he knows I don't have a problem with him," Pence said.

As he has before, Pence framed the debate about gay rights as an issue of competing beliefs. He declined to directly answer CNN's Dana Bash when she asked whether he thinks homosexuality is a choice.

"I think Pete’s quarrel is with the First Amendment," Pence responded. "All of us in this country have the right to our religious beliefs."

Asked whether his beliefs include that being gay is a sin, Pence said, "I'm a Bible-believing Christian. I draw my truth from God's word."

Pence also said he hopes "Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith or attacks on the president as he seeks the highest office in the land."

Buttigieg said he’s “not interested in feuding” with Pence. 

“But if he wanted to clear this up," he continued, "he could come out today and say he’s changed his mind, that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are."

He noted that there's no federal law that expressly prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Buttigieg had previously been critical of Pence’s support – when he was Indiana’s governor – of a “religious freedom” law that critics viewed as a license to discriminate against gay people.

But he acknowledged in his memoir, "Shortest Way Home," that he did not confront Pence when the governor told a group of mayors in 2015 that he planned to sign the bill into law.

Buttigieg wrote that he believed Pence was sincere when he telling the mayors it was "in my heart that it's the right thing to do."

"Not that it was the right thing to do, of course, but (I believed) that this was in his heart," Buttigieg wrote.

His critique became more personal and pointed Sunday in a speech to a group that supports LGBTQ candidates.

Buttigieg said his marriage last year to his husband, Chasten, made him a better human being.

Want news from USA TODAY on WhatsApp? Click this link on your mobile device to get started

"And, yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God," he said

Asked by CNBC's Joe Kernen on Wednesday whether his position on marriage equality had evolved in the past two decades as public opinion has shifted, Pence said: "My family and I have a view of marriage that’s informed by our faith."

"And we stand by that," Pence continued. "But that doesn’t mean that we’re critical of anyone else who has a different point of view."

Buttigieg, who talks often about his faith on the campaign trail, has said he wants a “more inclusive and more humane vision of faith than what this vice president represents.”

“When I’m in church, the scripture I hear is about taking care of the least among us,” he told DeGeneres, who is also gay. "It’s a message that is fundamentally about love, love and humility, humbling yourself before God and putting other people before you."