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The Global Reach of Religious Liberty Rhetoric

Museveni

SOURCE: AP/Rebecca Vassie

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni arrives at an anti-gay rally organized by a coalition of Ugandan religious leaders and government officials at the Kololo Independence grounds in Kampala, Uganda, Monday, March 31, 2014.

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For the past 16 years, the U.S.-affiliated and Kampala, Uganda-based Makerere University Walter Reed Project has conducted research on HIV vaccines and public health issues in the East African country. Earlier this month, Ugandan officials raided the project, detaining and interrogating a staff member, reportedly because of the project’s assistance to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, people. According to the project’s website, “the operations of the program are temporarily suspended to ensure the safety of staff and the integrity of the program.” Speculation that Uganda’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act, which prohibits “promoting homosexuality,” inspired the raid raises the question of what inspired the act in the first place.

Considering the act’s origins is relevant to the formulation of an official American response to it. However, this also has immediate domestic implications, since many of the arguments and actors behind anti-LGBT legislation and intolerance in Uganda, Nigeria, Russia, Lithuania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Gambia, and elsewhere are the same arguments and actors behind anti-LGBT “license to discriminate” bills here in the United States. One way to be responsive to intolerance abroad is to be responsible for our own voices at home.

Exporting the license to discriminate

Domestic religious liberty, or license to discriminate, bills are part of a global movement that misuses religion to justify discrimination and intolerance against LGBT people. Earlier this month, Mississippi lawmakers passed—and Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed into law—the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which civil rights groups fear will be invoked by religious business owners to justify their unwillingness to serve LGBT patrons and to circumvent existing or future anti-discrimination statutes. Despite substantive similarities between Arizona’s unsuccessful license to discriminate bill, S.B. 1062—which was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R)—and Mississippi’s successful bill, the latter received minimal media coverage, while the former drew outrage from state and national businesses, the faith community, and even one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Although a majority of the public might not know about Mississippi’s new license to discriminate bill, Tony Perkins sure does. Perkins—president of the Family Research Council, or FRC, a right-wing organization that has been linked to the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups—attended its private signing ceremony. Not only have Perkins and his group supported license to discriminate bills across the country, but the FRC also spent a significant amount of money in 2010 lobbying Congress to vote down a resolution denouncing Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill.

The American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ—founded by Pat Robertson, a conservative Southern Baptist minister and media mogul—is also active in both the U.S. license to discriminate movement and efforts to criminalize homosexuality abroad. The Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius, commonly referred to as Hobby Lobby, will determine the direction of pending and future license to discriminate bills. Both the ACLJ and the FRC filed amicus briefs in support of Hobby Lobby, the for-profit, secular company whose owners object to providing their employees insurance coverage for certain contraceptive options mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

When American pastor and Massachusetts native Scott Lively spoke to Uganda’s government in 2009, his argument that homosexuality was a “disease” from the West and a threat to children ultimately inspired the bill that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed into law earlier this year. Lively’s efforts abroad have roots in the United States that extend back to 1992, when he helped introduce an Oregon ballot initiative that referred to homosexuality as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse” and aimed to prohibit Oregon’s government from doing anything to “promote, encourage or facilitate” homosexuality. He has used similar arguments in Latvia, Russia, and other countries, several of which have either passed or are considering bans on “homosexual propaganda” not unlike propaganda laws in many American states. Recent efforts to enact domestic license to discriminate laws via ballot initiative in Oregon reflect Lively’s previous efforts. Although Lively now faces a lawsuit in federal court for international crimes against humanity due to his contributions to the persecution of LGBT Ugandans, he is moving forward with a new partnership dedicated to opposing LGBT rights worldwide.

Advocacy at home can help abroad

In light of the links between international and domestic intolerance, one way to be an ally of the LGBT community abroad is to advocate against discriminatory policies and misleading rhetoric here at home. The migration of homophobia from country to country and state to state cannot effectively be stopped without examining its origins.

Some countries reject LGBT equality as a Western value, seemingly ignoring evidence that American evangelical groups are the ones, according to a Boston-based progressive group, “attempting a ‘cultural colonisation’ of Africa” at the expense of LGBT Africans. In support of his signing Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill into law, President Museveni said, “There’s now an attempt at social imperialism, to impose social values of one group on our society.” Indeed, the “demonization of LGBT Africans” is reminiscent of the extreme views of Lively and other Westerners who seek to justify discrimination against LGBT people.

LGBT equality is not solely a Western value; it is also supported by mainstream Christian values such as social justice, public service, and extending love and respect for basic human dignity. As two Episcopal bishops wrote to the Kansas Senate in opposition to that state’s version of a license to discriminate bill:

[W]e regret to observe that the current political agenda is encroaching upon fundamental principles that Christians, and people of all faiths, hold dear: compassion for the poor, safety for all people and equality for everyone. … In truth, [H.B. 2453] is not about religious freedom but is aimed at creating state-authorized bias and inequality. … This proposed legislation is reminiscent of the worst laws that permitted discrimination against people on the basis of color, sex or nation of origin.

Equality-minded faith leaders continue to speak out against domestic discrimination and intolerance abroad. In a world where anti-LGBT sentiment inspires witch hunts, suicide, and comparisons by government officials of LGBT people to disease-spreading mosquitoes, conflating religious liberty with LGBT inequality is dangerous at best. With human rights leaders being murdered in their homes, people being publicly whipped in court for being gay, frenzied mobs dragging gay people out of their homes to attack them with machetes, and teenagers taking the lives of their gay classmates, distortion of what religious liberty means in America affects people across the globe.

Bishop Gene Robinson, an LGBT advocate and recently retired Episcopal bishop, reminds us that words matter—they might not be “sticks and stones,” but “they can be as combustible as a match in dry underbrush.” Misinformation and distortion inspires intolerance and anti-LGBT sentiment around the world, and advocates continue to push back at its places of origin as well as its ultimate destinations. Admonitions that LGBT equality causes violence are misguided, even if they are well intentioned. As Bishop Robinson would respond:

Violence and murder of Christians is deplorable, but so is violence against and murder of LGBT people … [I]t is not helpful for some of [the Archbishop of Canterbury’s] own Anglican archbishops, bishops and clergy to join in support of anti-gay legislation and rhetoric in their own countries, thereby fueling the hatred and violence against innocent LGBT people, who are being criminalized and murdered for who they are.

The obstacle is not Christianity. As Kapya John Kaoma, senior religion and sexuality researcher at Political Research Associates, notes, “Religious-based human rights groups and leaders can play a vital role in defending the rights of sexual minorities and women by sharing the sources of their commitments in sacred scriptures.” The world benefits from partnerships between LGBT advocates and faith leaders who speak out against unjust intolerance of any kind.

Conclusion

Domestic license to discriminate bills and intolerance of LGBT people abroad are connected by their geographic origins and by the arguments behind them. Pushing back at home, against both extreme anti-LGBT rhetoric and blanket denunciations of religion, is key to diluting intolerance domestically, limiting its exportation abroad, and establishing meaningful relationships with international advocates, many of whom are fighting for equality within a framework that requires respect for religion. Collaborating with equality-minded faith leaders is crucial to reaffirming the LGBT movement’s credibility as a partner in respect for the dignity of every individual. Examining every thread, no matter how close to home, is necessary to unravel the global web of intolerance.

Tami A. Martin is an intern with the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.

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