Ugandans taking part in an anti-gay demonstration in Kampala, Uganda on February 14, 2010. (Trevor Snapp/AFP/Getty)
A gay rights group from the African country alleges an American church leader set the stage for their persecution at home. Nina Strochlic talks to the pastor about the landmark case. Last week, at the premiere of the documentary God Loves Uganda, attendees at the Sundance Film Festival glimpsed the impact American evangelicals have had in whipping up an anti-homosexual fervor in the African country. As one of the top destinations for American missionaries, Ugandan gay rights activists have been observing the flood of motivated visitors into their country and are undertaking their own crusade to get them out. But once the damage is done, can preachers of hate be held legally accountable for hate crimes?
On January 7, history was made when this question was brought before a Massachusetts courtroom by a Ugandan gay rights organization suing an American pastor for violating international law. Filed by advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to sue U.S. citizens for violations of international law, the civil-action suit alleges that evangelical pastor Scott Lively incited persecution against Uganda's LGBT community and helped create a dangerous environment that stifles their constitutional rights. It's a landmark suit--the first of its kind using the statute to fight against persecution on the grounds of sexual identity and gender discrimination.
The hearing's first day of arguments was without drama, but with much of the case resting on freedom of speech and circumstantial evidence, it could be a long, hard battle. Lively's defense filed a motion to dismiss the case, calling it an attack on his First Amendment rights. Now the two sides are waiting to hear from U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor, who will decide whether Lively's actions amount to persecution and violate international law, which defines it as a deprivation of fundamental human rights or harm imposed as penalty for exercising those rights.
The outcome of this trial won't make much difference on the ground. If found guilty, Lively could be responsible for civil damages and an injunction stopping him from further involvement in the issue. The stakes may not be high, but the symbolism is dominant--a victory would be a ruling against the man many Ugandan gays see as the catalyst for their persecution.
In March of 2009, Lively arrived in Uganda to headline the "Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual Agenda." By his own account, Lively gave three lectures at that conference, held private meetings with religious leaders, lawyers, and members of parliament, spoke in front of thousands of students, and did radio, television, and newspaper interviews. His speeches argued that homosexuality is a choice, and warned that having homosexuals in mainstream society threatened Uganda's children. After returning to the U.S., he wrote that he was told "our campaign was like a nuclear bomb against the 'gay' agenda in Uganda. I pray that this, and the predictions, are true."
The court filing by SMUG claims these meetings, speeches, and ongoing relationships with other prominent anti-homosexual activists in the country were influential enough to become the catalyst for the anti-gay fervor that has gripped the country--and for the so-called "Kill the Gays Bill," which was introduced a month later. The legislation, among other things, would forbid "organizations which promote homosexuality," and dole out hefty jail sentences and even the death penalty for LGBT individuals.
Speaking on the phone the day after the hearing, Lively says that he wanted "public policy to discourage [homosexuality] as a form of conduct," but adds that his efforts in the country didn't call for violence and focused on rehabilitation and the option for therapy instead of jail time. "The accusation is that I went there with the purpose of creating some kind of campaign of terror against homosexuals, which is just ridiculous," he says, and calls allegations that his influence inspired violence "a paranoid delusion."
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SOURCE: The Daily Beast - Nina Strochlic