From Uganda to the U.S. Bible Belt, the proliferation of gay discrimination laws

Uganda's harsh anti-gay law sparked a firestorm of disapproval in the West. But not in the U.S. Bible Belt where evangelical groups have pressed a dozen states to consider gay discrimination laws in the name of religious freedom. Arizona actually passed one, but its governor just vetoed it.

About a dozen U.S. states, in the name of religious freedom, are contemplating anti-gay laws

Opponents of Arizona's religious freedom bill, which would have allowed for discrimination against gays, rally at the state legislature on Friday. The bill passed but was rejected by Governor Jan Brewer on Wednesday. (The Arizona Republic / Cheryl Evans / Associated Press)

It is unfair to assert, as some on the political left here are doing, that conservative American Christians are responsible for Uganda's vicious new anti-gay law, which mandates life in prison for repeat homosexual behaviour.

It's pretty clear that Ugandan politicians themselves, and the voters who support them, bear responsibility for this codification of their own savage bigotry.

Ugandan gays have for years been persecuted and brutalized by police. Almost certainly, given this new law, they will qualify as legitimate asylum seekers.

In his new documentary, God Loves Uganda, filmmaker Roger Ross Williams depicts the buildup to the law's passage. He captures Ugandan pastors feverishly inciting hatred against gays, even murder of gays, as congregants cheer and raise their hands, volunteering to kill.

Make no mistake, though: many evangelical Americans are standing with them, chequebooks open and cheering just as lustily for the new law.

Uganda, for these American zealots, represents an oasis of religious freedom, a refuge from a West that they see as promiscuous and increasingly unwilling to accommodate their extreme religious beliefs.

They are watching Uganda accomplish what many of them wish America had maintained — the criminalization of gay sex.

Opening their wallets

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in 2003, and, last year, invalidated the parts of the Defence of Marriage Act that had forbid the federal government to recognize same-sex unions.

At the same time, at the state level, anti-gay-marriage statutes are being upended all over the country, either by courts, or by voters, or by politicians.

As a result, far-right Christian conservative leaders and pastors have been asking their congregants to open their wallets and finance efforts to both evangelize Africans, and to strike back here in the U.S., where they've persuaded legislators in about a dozen states to introduce so-called freedom of religion bills that would legalize anti-gay discrimination.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni gestures Monday after signing a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex. The law includes penalties of 14 years in jail for first-time offenders and life imprisonment for "aggravated homosexuality." (Rebecca Vassie / Associated Press)

Their flocks have responded with millions of dollars.

"The West has been in decline," says Lou Engle of the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer in God Loves Uganda. "Africa is the firepot of spiritual renewal and revival. It's very exciting to me."

Nearly 40 African countries outlaw homosexuality, but Uganda, with its 85-per-cent Christian population, has been a particular target for evangelical missionaries.

The Ugandan law, says Rev. Jo Anna Watson, also of the International House of Prayer, "says that homosexuality is illegal. And I agree. I would be the first one to say 'keep it.'"

Arizona's law

The International House of Prayer, an evangelical "megachurch", is deeply invested in the Ugandan effort. (You can see for yourself in Roger Ross Williams's mini-doc, "Gospel of Intolerance" on the New York Times website; it runs 8:06.)

Other Christian conservative groups, though, have been working here, through state legislators, to find new ways to legally suppress homosexuality.

Their greatest success has been Arizona, where a new bill, nominally intended to protect religious liberties, was passed by both houses of the Arizona legislature last Friday.

Until it was vetoed Wednesday night by Governor Jan Brewer, the Arizona law would have allowed any business or individual to openly discriminate against gays — whether in hiring, renting to or serving them in a store or restaurant — as long as religious beliefs are cited as the motivation.

Brewer was under enormous pressure this past week to both sign and reject the bill. 

Corporations like Apple, American Airlines and Marriott Hotels, knowing the economic power of the gay demographic, were advising her not to sign. So were both the state's U.S. senators (John McCain and Jeff Flake), while state legislators and hard-right conservatives like radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh were warning her to resist the "homosexual lobby."

In rejecting the bill, Brewer said she had been unable to identify a single case of religious freedom being impinged in Arizona, and that non-discrimination is a basic right in the state.

Not always successful

Anti-gay, freedom-of-religion bills similar to Arizona's have been introduced in 11 other states, according to the Washington Post; they've been derailed in at least three and are stuck in limbo in a few others.

In nearly all cases, their conservative Christian sponsors portray themselves as the victims of a secular society intent on stifling their right to practise their religion.

Intensely lobbied by all sides, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer finally vetoed the state's new religious freedom bill on Wednesday, saying non-discrimination was a basic right in the state. (Associated Press)

"While our sincere intent in voting for this bill was to create a shield for all citizens' religious liberties, the bill has instead been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword of religious intolerance," three Arizona state senators complained in a letter to Brewer.

Similarly, ultraorthodox Jewish groups in New Jersey are in court, fighting a state law forbidding so-called "gay conversion therapy," which involves pseudo-clinical efforts to thwart emerging homosexuality in minors. (Other laws forbidding the practices have been put forward in Massachusetts, New York Ohio, and one was passed in California last year.)

Again, these therapists are the ones who consider themselves victims.

"People are scared," says a spokesman for the gay-converters. "The atmosphere is very hostile."

Uganda defiant

Here in the U.S. the anti-gay crowd probably knows it's fighting a losing battle. Its most formidable enemy is the Constitution, which judges increasingly interpret as considering gays a protected minority.

The good old days for gay-bashers, in other words, are coming to an end here.

Though that is clearly not the case in much of the rest of the world, Africa being the new frontier.

Uganda remains defiant, though it is now seeing government aid from Europe disappear as a result of this new law (Canada and the U.S. are also reviewing their aid programs).

In fact, the country's comically titled minister of ethics and integrity, Simon Lokodo, recently agreed to an interview with Stephen Fry, a British thespian hosting a BBC documentary on anti-gay governments worldwide.

Lokodo told Fry, who is gay, that he'd better not be in Uganda to promote his sexual behaviour, or recruit Ugandans for gay sex.

Fry replied that the vast majority of sodomy worldwide is committed by heterosexuals, and that in any event gays certainly aren't responsible for the millions of girls raped in Africa every year.

That's an irrelevant comparison, objected Lokoda.

Besides, he added, in a stupendous display of casual misogyny: "I say let them do it ... It is at least the natural way of desiring sex."

The comments have provoked an uproar on the internet and in human rights circles. I couldn't find a critical word, though, from the evangelicals bringing God's word to Africans.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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