Obama Religious Adviser Wants President to Speak Against Ugandan 'Kill the Gays' Bill at Prayer Breakfast
After Thursday, the National Prayer Breakfast may never be the same again -- that's if President Obama takes the advice of a panel of clergy members, including one of his own advisers, and uses the breakfast podium to denounce a murderous law endorsed by two of its overseas members. At issue is a law proposed in Uganda that would severely criminalize lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender behavior, and carry the death sentence for gays who commit certain acts.
At a news conference sponsored by the American Prayer Hour yesterday at the National Press Club, Harry Knox, a member of the President's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives called on the president to use the podium at this week's National Prayer Breakfast to denounce Uganda's proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Conceived as an alternative to the National Prayer Breakfast, the American Prayer Hour is the title for a handful of progressive prayer events that will take place on Thursday in Dallas, Chicago, Berkeley, Anchorage, Washington, D.C., and Boynton Beach, Fla.
"You may rest assured that we have used every opportunity to talk with members of the administration staff about the speech that he's going to be making," said Knox, speaking of his fellow members of the faith-based council, "and urged them to include strong language about this issue."
Pressed by Religion Dispatches' Sarah Posner to describe the reception those urgings have met by the administration, Knox, who serves as director of the Human Rights Campaign's Religion and Faith Program, said, "First of all, actions speak louder than words, and the actions of the State Department at the direction of the president -- Secretary Clinton has taken very forceful action with the Ugandan government. It's clear to them that if this bill passes, it will have real ramifications for their relationship with the United States of America, and they have done that both quietly and publicly. So, we're pleased with the administration's response to date. And now we are asking the president to take the next step, and to speak out even more publicly, to help educate people here in this country about what's going on. That's really the leadership role that he could play this week that would be particularly helpful."
Late last year, the White House issued a statement condemning the bill.
However forceful the State Department's actions, the urgency for more pressure was brought home in the figure of a young Ugandan gay man named Moses, who addressed the media with a paper bag over his head, lest his identity become known in Uganda while he awaits the outcome of his asylum request in the U.S. Moses described how in today's Uganda, LGBT people are hunted down by neighbors, their names and addresses published in newspapers, their jobs taken from them and their families shamed.
Moses told of being forced into a heterosexual marriage by a patron who was helping him finance his education, and of losing his job when a secretary at the school where he taught outed him. He held up a copy of a newspaper known as the Red Pepper, which makes sport of publishing the names and photographs of suspected LGBT people, referred to, he said, as "our shameless men and brash women." Once your name is published on such a list, he said, you can forget about having a job.
The harassment and assault of gays, even by authorities, is an everyday occurrence in Uganda. ""I remember when I was raped by a policeman, there was no way I could go to a doctor...," Moses said. "I decided to go to a clinic to buy sleeping pills so that I could go in my room and hide...I knew if I told the health workers [about the rape], they would, of course, not give me help. They would instead report me, and I would at least make the headlines in the newspapers."
And that's just the result of the current cultural climate. The Anti-Homosexuality bill proposed by David Bahati, one of the Family's "key men" in Uganda, would require Ugandans to report suspected "homosexuals" to authorities under penalty of law -- and Moses could easily find himself sentenced to death.
"Tax documents from the Family show millions of dollars have gone into programs run by ...Bahati," Knox said in a press statement for the American Prayer Hour. "With that kind of influence, we call on the head of the Family, Doug Coe, to publicly speak out against the proposed anti-gay bill."
Although Bob Hunter, who serves as a sort of de facto spokesman for the Family, has stated his opposition to the bill, no public statement has been issued by the group as a whole, although some high-profile members, such as Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, belatedly made tepid comments in opposition to the bill. (Although both have been advocates for Uganda, they did not demand that Ugandan leaders withdraw the bill; they simply said they "hoped" it didn't pass into law.)
State Department pressure on Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni has him retreating a bit from the legislation, but not moving to kill it. Instead there's talk of reducing the death sentence to a mere 20 years in prison.
Moses said he sees little distinction between death and a 20-year sentence. "The life expectancy of Ugandans is 51," Moses explained. "That means imprisonment is a death sentence in itself." One suspects the life expectancy of Uganda's prison population may be a bit lower, especially for its gay denizens.
Also speaking on the panel were Rev. Elder Darlene Garner of the Metropolitan Community Church, an LGBT Christian denomination, and two men quite familiar with the Family: Bishop Carlton Pearson of Chicago's Christ Universal Temple, a fallen Oral Roberts protege, and Frank Schaeffer, who with his father, theologian Francis Schaeffer, was a pioneer in the early days of the religious right, and is now a frequent contributor to AlterNet.
The Metropolitan Community Church is among the 11 co-sponsoring organizations of the American Prayer Hour, which include the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Black Justice Coalition, the Two-Spirit Press Room, the MCC churches, GLAAD and PFLAG. Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out, also a co-sponsor, is coordinating the project.
The Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, the first openly LGBT person to achieve that rank in his denomination, offered an impassioned plea to Obama to use what he called "the biggest bully pulpit" to "make himself known to be in opposition not just to the death penalty [for LGBT people], but to this violation of human rights for all of God's children in Uganda and beyond."
"Prayer is a good thing," Robinson said, "and Americans ought to gather to pray, but we better be careful what we pray for. And we have a duty to confront those who are praying for those things that would break God's heart....And we hope the president and all of those who attend the National Prayer Breakfast will keep all of God's children in mind as they pray."
Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, added, "If the president repudiates this legislation if Doug Coe acknowledges that this was a sin and a moral opprobrium on the face of the earth, then it would truly be a prayer breakfast to remember. Maybe I'd go next year."