The Vatican’s Hypocrisy Endangers LGBTQ People Worldwide

“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” Pope Francis told reporters in July 2013. In January 2015, Pope Francis reportedly met with a transgender person, winning praises across the world for his openness. In February, however, the Pope erased any hope of a more progressive Catholic position when he compared gender theory (often used to defend and advocate for transgender rights) to nuclear weapons.

“Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,” he was quoted as saying. “Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation. … God has placed man and woman and the summit of creation and has entrusted them with the earth. The design of the Creator is written in nature.”

The Pope’s words and actions carry tremendous weight, and with them he has the power to either sanction or condemn the ongoing persecution or LGBTQI people around the world. Unfortunately, Pope Francis continues to play hide and seek on this issue—something his predecessor did, too.

Pope Francis celebrated as a progressive leader, but he has not yet acted upon his benevolent words.

Pope Francis is celebrated as a progressive leader, but he has not yet acted upon his benevolent words.

Pope Francis ought to realize that U.S. Roman Catholic leaders and organizations are equally responsible for the fire of homophobia and sexism that is raging in Africa and elsewhere. In 2009, the Vatican came out strongly against the criminalization of sexual minorities. This followed the introduction of Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill in Parliament. Then little-known U.S. evangelical Scott Lively traveled to Uganda for an anti-homosexuality conference in March 2009. The very next month, the Ugandan Parliament drafted and introduced one of the most extreme anti-LGBTI laws in the world—the Anti-Homosexuality Act, as it was officially known, called for the death penalty for LGBTI people. Africans such as Pastor Martin Ssempa (for whom megachurch Pastor Rick Warren was a mentor), Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, and Uganda’s Joint Christian Council (which includes several Roman Catholic Bishops among its members) ensured the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February 2014. The law was struck down by the Constitutional Court of Uganda on purely technical reasons later that same year, but it still has the potential to pass again—another reason why the Pope’s voice is so desperately needed in the struggle for sexual rights.

On December 10, 2009, the Holy See released a little-known historic statement that opposed “all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person.” With this statement, the Vatican seemed to establish a position in firm opposition to the (not yet extant) “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda and similar laws elsewhere.

The human rights world applauded the Vatican’s position—but the above words were never uttered by the Pontiff himself or inserted into the Encyclical (the official document of Roman Catholic positions on various issues). Rather than making a bold statement affirming and defending LGBTQI peoples, the Vatican’s posturing outsmarted human rights advocates around the world. By denouncing criminalization of sexual minorities, the Vatican was able to evade responsibility for human rights abuses (laying the blame solely on U.S. conservative evangelicals), while still endorsing the work of U.S.-based Catholic groups such The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, Human Life International, and Priests for Life, as well as bishops and other church leaders guilty of campaigning for the criminalization of sexual minorities. In Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and many other African countries, Roman Catholic bishops and priests—with the support of their colleagues in the U.S. and at the Vatican—have been at the forefront of anti-LGBTI campaigns.

Much blame has been placed on the shoulders of conservative American evangelicals, but U.S. Roman Catholic right-wing groups are equally guilty of exporting homophobia and sexism to Africa. This was illustrated in February 2015, when Roman Catholic Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of the Diocese of Oyo in Nigeria claimed that Nigeria’s failure to rescue the kidnapped girls (the Chibok girls taken by the Islamist group Boko Haram) was due to lack of support from the Obama administration, resulting from its opposition to an anti-LGBTI law passed in Nigeria in 2014. While the media cited Bishop Badejo for this statement, the claim was originally made by a U.S. conservative: Rep. Steve Stockman, who in August 2014 argued, “We have information that would help the Nigerian military take back their country and get back those girls. The mistake on our side—the United States’ side—is that we have laws preventing us from sharing that information with the Nigerian military. And one of the reasons is that we don’t like some of the social policy of the Nigerian government.”

The passage of Nigeria’s 2014 anti-LGBTQI law, which applies a 14-year jail sentence for same-sex marriages and prohibits advocacy of sexual minorities’ rights, was celebrated by Nigerian Roman Catholic Bishops. The bishops commended the government for its “courageous and wise decision” to fight “the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices that have continued to debase the purpose of God for man in the area of creation and morality, in their own countries.” Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama went as far as saying “thank God that this bill was passed.” The failure of the Vatican to oppose or counter such statements implies approval; its hide-and-seek game essentially sanctions the persecution of sexual minorities in Africa and other parts of the world.

Pope Francis is continually credited as being a much more “progressive” leader than many of his predecessors, but he has done nothing to oppose anti-LGBTQI laws in Africa, Russia, and Asia. Though celebrated as a champion of people’s rights, Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of his conservative predecessor Benedict XVI, who condemned criminalization and dehumanization of sexual minorities while simultaneously blessing the Ugandan Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga in 2012—knowing that she had promised to pass the “Kill the Gays” bill into law.

As the World Meeting of Families draws near in Philadelphia, human rights advocates anxiously await a public statement from Pope Francis on human sexuality. If the event centers on the definition of “family values” promoted by U.S. Roman Catholic and evangelical conservatives, then the Pope’s visit will further sanction the demonization, scapegoating, and persecution of LGBTQI individuals around the world. U.S. conservatives—from lesser-known characters like Matt McLaughlin and Scott Lively to big name leaders like Franklin Graham and Rick Warren—are awaiting the Pope’s visit to advance their global anti-human rights agenda.

The Pope’s upcoming visit to the U.S. provides another opportunity for the advancement of human rights for all people. The persecution, violence, and trauma caused by religiously sanctioned homophobia demands a statement from Pope Francis on LGBTQI rights. His words have the potential to either sanction continuous violence, rape, criminalization, persecution, and killings—or bring long-awaited and desperately needed acceptance of sexual minorities across the globe.

We will be watching!

California’s “Shoot the Gays” Ballot Initiative Serves as Permission Slip for African Conservatives

The news that a Christian lawyer named Matt McLaughlin submitted a proposed ballot initiative in California that would require the execution of all LGBTQ people may sound laughable in the United States, but McLaughlin’s goal might not actually be to see the initiative signed into law. It may, in fact, be meant as a signal to countries all over the world where U.S. conservative Christians are encouraging the passage of similar anti-LGBTQ laws, essentially saying that if people in the U.S. are “considering” such a law, they should be free to do the same.

The “Sodomite Suppression Act” ballot initiative in California says, “in the fear of God, that any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.”

Matt McLaughlin and the text of his “Sodomite Suppression Act”

 

It’s practically a foregone conclusion that McLaughlin will not succeed in collecting the required number of signatures to get his initiative on the ballot, but that doesn’t mean he’s without company here in the U.S. Just as Scott Lively received roughly 19,000 votes in his failed gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts last year, McLaughlin will have some people who share similar views, both here and—importantly—in Africa. The concern should be that while his initiative is scoffed at in the U.S., the American culture warriors who are actively pursuing legislative persecution of both sexual minorities and women’s reproductive freedom in countries like Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, and Russia will leverage the fact that it has been proposed (and therefore given the serious consideration that America’s democracy requires) in order to sway foreign leaders and communities—people who may not realize how simple it is to pay a few dollars to get a ballot initiative in California proposed.

It was not long ago that (then) little-known U.S. right-wing evangelical Scott Lively traveled to Uganda and called on their Parliament to pass extreme anti-LGBTQ laws as a strategy for protecting young people from “homosexual recruitment” and the nation from “the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Aside from being heralded in Uganda as a “Man of God,” Lively’s talking points were adopted by Africans such as Pastor Martin Ssempa, Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, and, of course, by Parliamentarian David Bahati—recently elevated to a full cabinet position in the Museveni administration—who became the author and sponsor of the infamous 2009 “Kill the Gays” bill.

Despite the increase in violence against sexual minorities in Uganda, Bahati sees nothing wrong with the bill—something he recently told VICE Magazine. On a subsequent visit to the U.S., Bahati also told Rachel Maddow that he saw nothing wrong with executing gays for “aggravated homosexuality.” Citing the Bible, Bahati argued that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

The Anti Homosexuality Act—as it’s officially titled—was signed into law in February 2014 before getting struck down by the Constitutional Court of Uganda for technical reasons. While LGBTQ activists in Uganda deserve to celebrate this important victory, members of Uganda’s Parliament have pledged to revive it in the near future.

Because McLaughlin’s proposed initiative is rooted in (his version of) Evangelical Christianity, U.S. Christian conservative leaders have a moral obligation to oppose it. But U.S. conservative leaders are so timid to stand up against bigotry. It took months of intense public pressure and scrutiny before The Fellowship (aka “The Family”) and U.S. megachurch pastor Rick Warren were forced to denounce the “Kill the Gays” bill—the legislation Warren himself exported on his 2008 visit to Uganda, during which he rejected sexual minorities’ rights as human rights. U.S. conservatives claim that extremists like McLaughlin and Lively are not representative of their positions—that they are merely fringe characters. Yet when extremists use the name of Christianity to export ideologies that hurt our fellow human beings, these same so-called “moderate” conservatives keep quiet (while simultaneously demanding that every U.S. Muslim should denounce Islamic Fundamentalists!).

McLaughlin’s initiative may be extreme, but it clearly illustrates how American culture wars ride on religion. The dangerous fire of religiously-sanctioned homophobia and sexism is currently burning across African nations in the name of God. The legislation pushed for and created by U.S. conservatives in Uganda and Russia now serves as models for other nations—similar laws have subsequently passed in The Gambia and Nigeria, and unless all U.S. people of conscience immediately begin working here at home to contain these homegrown culture warriors, their spread of anti-human rights poison abroad will only increase.

Christian leaders of all traditions and faiths must stand up against homophobia—they must condemn any promotion of hatred in the name of religion. Like McLaughlin, Edward Onwong’a Nyakeriga of Kenya’s Republican Liberty Party wants execution by stoning or life imprisonment for sexual minorities. Under the premise of “protecting” traditional family values, Nyakeriga argues the law is necessary to stop “sexual rights activists” from imposing “their values of sexual promiscuity on the people of Kenya.” As McLaughlin reveals (again), these words are taken directly from U.S. conservative talking points.

But conservative talking points have bodies—U.S. anti-human rights Christian conservatives are actively exporting their ideologies to Africa, where they are unquestioningly received as scientific truths. Depending on how the Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriages next month, U.S. Conservative ideologies may soon be history. Due to the number of losses Christian conservatives have suffered—and continue to suffer—in U.S. courts, accompanied by their failure to sell their anti-human rights agenda to young evangelicals, American culture warriors know they are fighting a losing battle. But this does not mean they will be out of business soon—their campaign is already globalized, and their talking points have found an eager market in Africa.

As eyes are set on the U.S., well-known and little-known U.S. conservatives such as Warren, Lively, and Sharon Slater have been waging anti-human rights battles on foreign grounds for many years. We all know that Pastor Warren (reluctantly) opposed the “Kill the Gays” bill when speaking on U.S. soil, but when is he going to condemn homophobia while he is visiting Rwanda? Hence, as long as the U.S. Right continues to dump its expired arsenal of homophobia and sexism on African soil, sexual minorities and women will be the direct victims of the same.

On a continent where over 90% of the population identifies as religious, African homophobia is covered in religiously coded messages. The efforts of human rights defenders alone won’t put out the fire of homophobia and sexism—religious leaders must also play a part. American evangelical religious leaders and para-church organizations operating in Africa—from World Vision to Pastor Warren’s PEACE Plan to Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse—have a moral obligation to speak out against religiously sanctioned violence directed toward sexual minorities and women. Their voices will determine who lives and who dies. These groups may claim to be oblivious to the persecution of sexual minorities and women in Africa, but religiously sanctioned homophobia and sexism continues to destroy and claim lives there.

While evangelical Christians of good conscience need to oppose anti-human rights positions advocated for by U.S. Christian extremists both at home and abroad, they also have the duty to demand that all evangelical organizations operating in Africa denounce homophobia and sexism. Keeping silent when lesbians are raped and gays are arrested and killed across the continent is not Christ-like—it is shameful and a betrayal of our biblical faith and family values. Mr. McLaughlin provides Pastor Warren and all evangelical pastors and scholars with an opportunity to honor the sacred humanity of all persons by denouncing his initiative as un-Christian.

 

How the Right is Co-Opting #BlackLivesMatter to Roll Back Repro Rights

The Right Wing’s success in reframing and co-opting social justice movements for the advancement of its own agenda has derailed more than one progressive campaign. With skillfully manipulative messaging, improved healthcare access and reproductive freedom have been redefined as murderous, genocidal crusades; LGBTQ people have been twisted into dangerous, perverse threats to women and children; economic justice efforts are distorted as handouts for lazy, work-averse people.

The Right’s new target? Black Lives Matter.

With the Black Lives Matter movement sparking actions, demonstrations, and conversations around the country, the Right is carefully plotting strategies to divert energy and attention away from racial justice, seeking to preserve the status quo at all costs, and—if they’re crafty enough—gain ground on their own conservative agenda.

As protesters marched and demonstrated from coast to coast following the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson—the man responsible for the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager—the Right hastily put forward alternative narratives. Among them is an emerging effort to convert the “Black Lives Matter” rallying cry into an anti-abortion campaign.

In December, the Illinois Family Institute—one of many state-based conservative “family policy councils” working to implement a right-wing social and political agenda at the state level—published a blog post entitled, “’Black Lives Matter’ … or do they?” The author, Fran Eaton (a White woman), argued that “the real threat to America’s Black community are abortionists much more than law enforcement officers.” Eaton claims that since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, “16 million tiny Black lives have perished in abortion clinics.”

too many aborted billboardTo back up her reframing of the Black Lives Matter movement, she turns to two of the anti-abortion camp’s favorite Black surrogates: Ryan Bomberger, co-founder of the Radiance Foundation, and Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and director of African American Outreach at the anti-choice Catholic organization Priests for Life.

Bomberger’s organization is infamous for its controversial “Too Many Aborted” billboard campaigns, which began cropping up around the country in 2010. Signs proclaiming “Black Children are an Endangered Species” and “Abortion Makes Three-Fifths Human Seem Overly Generous” were placed in predominantly Black neighborhoods, making no secret of their strategy to target Black women.

bomberger graph

Infographic from the Radiance Foundation

 

As Dorothy Roberts outlined in her seminal 1998 book, Killing the Black Body, there is indeed a long and devastating history of women’s fertility and reproduction being controlled by the state, particularly among communities of color. In some cases, these attacks on reproductive freedom have been furthered not just by conservative White legislators, but also by Black spokespeople.

Sadly, this multi-pronged, insider/outsider assault continues still today, as exemplified by Bomberger and King’s efforts to further restrict access to safe and healthy abortions that are free from shame and condemnation. Increasingly, these ongoing attacks are taking shape in the form of “race and sex-selective abortion bans”—laws that would prevent healthcare providers from performing abortions if they suspect the person seeking care is doing so based on the anticipated race or sex of the fetus.

Race & Sex-Selective Abortion Bans—Stealing the Civil Rights Act

Prior to 2010, only two states banned sex-selective abortions: Illinois passed a ban in 1979, and Pennsylvania passed a similar law in 1982. Beginning in 2008, however, leaders in the anti-choice movement began mobilizing constituents behind this new tactic.

In 2008, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), proposed H.R. 7016, the Susan B. Anthony Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA). In a press conference, Franks claimed his strategy was to simply extend standard civil rights protections, encapsulated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to unborn Americans. “Sex and race discrimination are already forbidden,” he said. “We took everything applicable from the 1964 Civil Rights Act and applied it to the unborn.”

Franks was joined by Alveda King and several other anti-choice spokespeople, including Steven Mosher, head of the right-wing Population Research Institute. In an article published shortly after H.R. 7016’s introduction, Mosher wrote:

I propose that we—the pro-life movement—adopt as our next goal the banning of sex- and race-selective abortion. By formally protecting all female fetuses from abortion on the ground of their sex, we would plant in the law the proposition that the developing child is a being whose claims on us should not depend on their sex.

This sense of contradiction will be further heightened among radical feminists, the shock troops of the abortion movement. They may believe that the right to abortion is fundamental to women’s emancipation, but many will recoil at the thought of aborting their unborn sisters. How can they, who so oppose patriarchy and discrimination on the basis of sex, consent to [the] ultimate form of patriarchy and discrimination, namely, the elimination of baby girls solely on account of their sex? Many, it is safe to predict, will be silent, while others will raise their voices, but with less conviction.

While the pro-aborts are stammering and stuttering, we pro-lifers will be advancing new moral and logical arguments against the exercise of the “right” to an abortion solely on the grounds of sex or race. For those who are immune to moral arguments, we can also use the examples of China and India, where sex-selective abortion is creating enormous societal problems. The debate over sex- and race-selective abortion will also help to focus the public’s attention on how unregulated the abortion industry is. In these and other ways, the debate over this legislation will not subtract from, but add to, the larger goal of reversing Roe v. Wade and, ultimately, passing a Human Life Amendment. – “A New Front in the Abortion Wars

Franks, considered one of the most conservative members of Congress, has persisted in his efforts, reintroducing the bill in 2008, ’09, ’11, ’12, and ’13. In 2013, Franks also proposed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks based on the medically-disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain at that point. That bill, which still lacked sufficient support when it was re-introduced in January of this year, will likely be back up for consideration soon.

Franks’ home state of Arizona is the only state to have passed a race-selective abortion ban. This legislation is currently being contested by the ACLU on behalf of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

As NAPAWF explains:

These bills are part of a deceptive attempt to slip anti-choice measures under the radar. They claim to promote racial and gender equity, when in reality they aim to chip away at reproductive rights by exploiting negative stereotypes about women of color. Using the language of equality, anti-choice conservatives hope to foster nontraditional alliances with true advocates for women and people of color, in order to gain broad support for their agenda.

As in Illinois, Arizona has its own family policy organization, the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP). CAP was originally known as the Arizona Family Research Institute, and from 1988-1993, Franks served as the organization’s executive director. Now one of the most influential political groups in the state, CAP is a member of CitizenLink, a nationwide network of right-wing state level lobbying groups and the policy arm of Focus on the Family. CitizenLink currently lists “fully associated” groups in 38 states.

With the exception of Oklahoma, every other state to have successfully passed sex-selective abortion bans thus far (Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania) has one of these CitizenLink-affiliated groups working hard to derail movements toward social justice and advance the Right’s fundamentalist Christian agenda.

The Right’s media-messaging machine is well resourced and ready to co-opt and distort all struggles for social justice, including the Black Lives Matter movement. With high-profile Black surrogates like Bomberger and King out in front, and national support from organizations like Focus on the Family, CitizenLink, Radiance Foundation, and Americans United for Life, the anti-abortion movement is gaining ground—already this year, state lawmakers have introduced more than 300 bills designed to chip away at civil liberties and reproductive freedom.

It can be difficult to translate truth from the Right’s manipulative reframing, but Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, offers an easy litmus test: “If those who oppose abortion truly believed that black lives matter, they would be standing beside reproductive justice activists, and join our unequivocal assertion that the right to choose an abortion is just as important as the right to have children and parent them in healthy, thriving communities. Equality and justice can never be rooted in stigma, shaming, or violence, and it’s time the anti-choice movement recognized that.”

Christian Right Leaders Escalate Anti-LGBTQ Threats

As marriage equality has advanced around the country, and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on the issue in June, threatening language is escalating on the Christian Right.   If these culture warriors actually follow through with their threats, the story of our time may turn on terms like civil disobedience, martyrdom and even civil war.  The operative word here is, “if.”

supreme court cross

In recent years, we have repeatedly heard threats of civil disobedience from Christian Right Leaders – everyone from the signers of the historic, 2009 Manhattan Declaration (which included top Roman Catholic prelates and evangelical and organized Christian right leaders), to Rick Warren.  We have heard predictions of civil war, revolution, and martyrdom from the likes of Catholic thinker John McCloskey, theocratic evangelical intellectual Peter Leithart, and even Christian Right electoral activist David Lane. We have also heard calls for political assassinations and secessionist civil war from White Southern Christian Nationalists, Michael Hill, David Whitney, and Michael Peroutka.

Most recently, some 200 Christian Right figures signed a renewed pledge of resistance to the anticipated Supreme Court decision favoring marriage equality.  At a press conference, they called this “A Bonhoeffer Moment in America.” The reference is to the famous Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazi regime and was hanged for his role in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.  Bonhoeffer is increasingly invoked by Christian Right leaders as they compare the situation in the United States to Nazi Germany and cast him—as they choose to define him—as a role model for Christian Right resistance.

The new manifesto says that extending marriage to same-sex couples violates their religious freedom, and that they want to “respectfully warn the Supreme Court” that they would adhere to “higher law.” Their language was (relatively) soft, but clear:  “Make no mistake about our resolve,” they concluded, “ …this is the line we must draw and one we cannot and will not cross.”

Co-authored by Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel and Catholic activist Keith Fournier, signers of the declaration include such well known Christian Right leaders as James Dobson, Jim Garlow, Franklin Graham, John Hagee, William Boykin, and Frank Pavone; Southern Baptist Convention leaders Paige Patterson, Ed Young, Robert Jeffress and Richard Land; leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation, including Alveda King, Samuel Rodriguez, Cindy Jacobs, James Robison, Rick Joyner, and Joseph Mattera; and Republican politicians Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Tom DeLay.

Not to be outdone, anti-LGBTQ activist Scott Lively announced that the only way to thwart marriage equality is with the “threat of the mob.” Lively is walking a line as like those who have come before – wanting people to take his call seriously, even as he characterizes it as but a metaphor.

“The elites need to see the angry mob – liberals and conservatives together – surging through the streets, pitchforks and torches held aloft, ready to tear down Frankenstein’s castle with their bare hands if need be. For Christians it’s Jesus and the moneychangers time!  Making a whip of cords like He did with His own hands, and letting these arrogant puppet-masters know we mean to use it (metaphorically speaking).”

“The only way to deter the elites is with the threat of the mob,” Lively concluded. “They need to see the pitchforks and torches to know they’ve gone too far and need to back down.”

There is an art to brushing with incitement to violence.  It is an art with which the Far Right in the U.S. is very familiar.  Anti-choice militants often engage, or threaten to engage, in activities that walk up to or actually transgress personal and property boundaries of many kinds, including violence. But we have also seen the federal courts recognize that threatening language can morph into a “true threat” – as happened in the case of American Coalition of Life Activists v. Planned Parenthood.

As attorney Maria Vullo told me in an interview in 2002, that the case did not harm freedom of speech. “When you cross over the line into threatening violence,” she says, “it’s not free speech.”

Such concerns may take on new meaning since Christian Right leaders frequently compare the current Supreme Court same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges, to Roe v. Wade, and may be serious about waging a long term war of attrition against an unfavorable outcome.

Let’s consider for example, the implications of the lawsuit brought by Ugandan LGBTQ activists against Scott Lively – who, as PRA’s senior researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma broke in 2009, was one of the leading U.S. culture warriors who promoted the virulent homophobia that led to the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda.

Sexual Minorities of Uganda v. Lively will be tried in September of 2015 in federal court in Springfield, Massachusetts – just two months after the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges; followed in October by the World Congress of Families in Salt Lake City. The latter will bring together some of the leading anti-LGBTQ militants in the world – some of whom have worked for legislation modeled on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Law in their home countries.  

The case against Lively, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), relies on the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreign victims of crimes under international law access to American courts. SMUG v. Lively is the first such case brought to protect LGBTQ people.

Lively is accused of the crime of “persecution,” as defined under international law as systematically seeking to deprive people of their fundamental rights not only of life, but of equality under the law – including equal rights of speech, assembly, and association. Persecution is defined here as the “severe deprivation of fundamental rights” on the basis of identity, a “crime against humanity.”

Lively’s claim that LBGTQ people are, among other things, predatory pedophiles has fueled rage not because of what people have done, but because of who they are. Even though the Anti-Homosexuality Bill had not yet passed when the lawsuit was filed (it later passed, was then struck down by the courts on procedural grounds, and now may make its return in the Ugandan parliament), SMUG said that vigilantes were acting as though it had.  People feared for their lives and possible arrest, received death threats, and were excluded from HIV-related education and health services. Meetings were raided, and LGBTQ leaders and attendees rounded-up and arrested.

CCR attorney Pamela Spees argued that since Lively first went to Uganda in 2002, no one had done more to strip away human rights protections for LGBTQ people. And although he was not present (as Lively’s attorney from Liberty Counsel noted) when specific criminal acts were perpetrated, nor did he supervise the crimes, Lively nevertheless participated in a wide-ranging conspiracy from which these crimes resulted. Lively was described as a “strategist” and an “architect.”

The nature of the civil disobedience being promised by various elements of the Christian Right in response to a potential pro-marriage equality ruling by the Supreme Court remains to be seen. It may turn out that some are just blowing smoke and will ultimately be able to live with the social changes taking place in the country. But it is likely that others can’t – or won’t. Some certainly believe that the survival of Christendom (as they understand it) is at stake.  And if their actions catch up with their words, there may be violence.

The Right’s Dangerous Duo: Robert P. George & Rick Warren

On April 30th, Biola University—ranked among the most conservative schools in the country—will play host to a conversation between famed academics Robert  “Robbie” P. George and Cornel West entitled “The Cost of Freedom: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil.” George has been described as “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” West, on the other hand, is a world-renowned progressive political philosopher and race theorist. The two affirm a deep and mutual friendship, and have shared classrooms and stages across the country for nearly a decade, seeking to exemplify fruitful dialogue across political and ideological and differences.

It’s a curious rapport, but in a society and culture that often promotes either antagonism or avoidance rather than deep and thought-provoking engagement within conflict, it is a rare and exciting thing to witness. The real story to pay attention to, though, is the relationship between George and the event’s moderator—the anything-but-moderate evangelical megachurch pastor, Rick Warren.

 

Robert P George (left) and Rick Warren (right) discuss religious freedom at the Berkley Center in 2013

Robert P George (left) and Rick Warren (right) discuss religious freedom at the Berkley Center in 2013

For many years, George operated outside of public view, establishing tremendous networks of influence amongst powerful leaders in academia, religion, and politics. As popular conservative leaders and pundits captured the public’s attention, George was quietly and methodically writing their script. As the conservative Catholic journal Crisis explained in a 2003 article: “He runs a kind of free-lemonade stand of advice for senators, congressmen, Catholic bishops, and evangelical leaders” who are looking for effective arguments against women’s bodily autonomy or equal rights for LGBTQ people.

He is the vice chairman of the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center, chairman emeritus of the National Organization for Marriage (which recently disclosed its plan to go global with their anti-LGBTQ work), sits on the board of directors for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (the Green Family’s legal counsel in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby), co-founded the right-wing Witherspoon Institute (responsible for the thoroughly debunked but still destructively anti-LGBTQ Regnerus study), and serves on the editorial boards for multiple conservative publications, including the LDS (Mormon )Church-owned Deseret News. In 2012, George was appointed to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, where he serves as vice chair.

In 2009, George finally stepped into the spotlight as the primary author of The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, a manifesto signed by approximately 150 of America’s leading right-wing religious and political activists calling for a rededication to the fight for “the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty.” As PRA research fellow Fred Clarkson observed, The Manhattan Declaration’s distinct achievement—beyond serving as an anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman rallying cry—was “to broaden and deepen the emerging alliance between conservative Roman Catholics and right-wing evangelical Protestants.”

Indeed, the Declaration’s signatories make up a who’s who list of the U.S. Religious Right, including prominent anti-gay culture warrior Rick Warren. Warren was also invited to speak at “Humanum: An Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman” in November 2014—a Vatican-sponsored event that George served as a key organizer for. 

Now, the two men are experimenting with their own version of complementarity, each playing distinct roles in the manipulation of religious liberty arguments (e.g. Hobby Lobby’s claim that the Affordable Care Act violates their “deeply held religious convictions”)—the Right’s newest attack strategy against civil rights for women and LGBTQ people. In his usual behind-the-scenes way, George has been acting as one of the primary strategists, writing the script for the state-by-state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) saga playing out across the country, while Warren—always a sucker for the spotlight—has taken on the task of mobilizing his cast of “purpose-driven” characters to act out George’s drama.

With talk of civil disobedience and martyrdom, Warren is mobilizing his followers to fight for the “fundamental human right” of religious liberty—a right that he insists is being threatened by the steady expansion of rights and protections for women and LGBTQ people. (Not surprisingly, Warren’s concern for human rights is ideologically selective—in addition to being a strident opponent of marriage equality, he has said of homosexuality that it is “not a natural way of life and thus not a human right.”)

Though Rick Warren presents himself as a moderate, it’s no secret that he is a fundamentalist conservative known for his opposition to LGBTQ equality and women’s reproductive freedom. He is the founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch based in Lake Forest, California that boasts an average weekly attendance of 20,000 people.

In addition to having multiple branches throughout Southern California, Saddleback has also branched out globally. In 2005, Warren announced his “P.E.A.C.E. Plan” to address what he calls the “five global giants” of spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy. Concentrating on twelve strategic “Gateway Cities” around the world, including Accra, Amman, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Moscow, the P.E.A.C.E. Plan is rapidly expanding Warren’s reach and influence around the world.

The millionaire pastor travels extensively as part of his dominionist agenda, spreading his dangerous right-wing ideologies wherever he goes by developing close relationships with government leaders, business leaders, and religious leaders, including many prominent anti-LGBTQ pastors. When launching his “Purpose Driven Living” campaign in Uganda in 2008, Warren proclaimed to a crowd of cheering church leaders, “The future of Christianity is not Europe or North America, but Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” Warren was also one of the key U.S. culture warriors responsible for Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” legislation. He eventually denounced the bill after he came under fire in U.S. media, which prompted vitriolic anti-LGBTQ Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa to pen an open letter to Warren demanding to know why he was saying things contrary to what he’d said in Uganda.

Despite these PR missteps, Warren hasn’t shied away from the international scene in the least. Sometimes referred to as “America’s pastor,” he is also arguably aspiring to be “Africa’s pastor,” too.In an email to supporters sent out in May 2014, Warren announced that he will host an “All-Africa Purpose Driven Church Leadership Training Conference” in Kigali, Rwanda later this year. He is calling for leading African evangelicals from each of the continent’s 54 countries to join him, as well as 54 other American pastors whom Warren has enlisting to join him, in order to “adopt” these new “purpose driven” recruits. This will be the first of five continent-wide conferences over the next five years—Warren’s final campaign before retiring from Saddleback in 2020.

Rwanda ranks among the world’s poorest countries, and has been the focus of much of Warren’s international work since he first visited at the invitation of President Paul Kagame in 2005. Kagame enlisted Warren’s help in making the small African nation the first “purpose-driven country” after reading the famous pastor’s bestseller, A Purpose Driven Life. Warren now sits on Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council, and claims Rwanda as his “home,” pointing to his Rwandan diplomatic passport as proof.

That Kagame has been accused of numerous human rights violations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others seems not to have deterred Warren, who has hosted him multiple times as a guest of honor at Saddleback’s main campus. After all, the notion of “human rights” is an ambiguous one for Warren, reserved primarily for straight Christians facing “persecution” here in the U.S.

To be clear, the real threat—both in the U.S. and around the world—is the Christian Right’s attempt to co-opt the language of human rights and religious liberty, and (under the guise of “civil discourse”) advance their myth of persecution, which ultimately serves as a strategy to trump the rights of others and justify discrimination. Robert P. George and Cornel West might be the duo attracting the most attention tonight, but as backlash against gains made by women and LGBTQ people grows, the ones to really watch will be Robbie and Rick.

Growing Mormon-Catholic Alliance: Quiet Partners Behind Christian Right’s Religious Discrimination Agenda

While Tony Perkins, Brian Brown, Bryan Fischer, and other Christian Right pundits of the more shrill variety may be easy to ignore as they demand a right to discriminate on Fox News, there is a more dangerous coalition emerging. One of the primary drivers of the movement to corrupt and redefine religious freedom isn’t someone in a shouting match on cable news, but a decades-long alliance of top Mormons and Catholics.

While Mormons and Catholics may seem like unlikely allies, from a political perspective they bring complementary strengths to their partnership. The Mormon Church has an amazing amount of wealth on hand (it’s estimated to be worth over $40 billion – gathered from real estate and commercial holdings, mandatory tithing collections from members, and even a theme park in Hawaii) and a world-class grassroots mobilization and recruitment force. The Catholic Church and related groups, on the other hand, enjoy a much higher approval rating with the American public (62 percent) and thus can put a more popular face on public political campaigns.

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (center) speaks with Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, (right) and Princeton University Professor Robert P. George (left) at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York City, 16 May 2013.

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (center) speaks with Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, (right) and Princeton University Professor Robert P. George (left) at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York City, 16 May 2013.

The political allegiance between Mormons and Catholics dates back at least to the 1990s in Hawaii, during the first U.S. battle over same-sex marriage. As I previously reported, while the Mormons could—and did—provide funding and volunteers to that campaign, the more popular Catholic Church acted as the coalition’s public face. The Catholic Church and other visible allies would thereby absorb any public backlash directed towards the coalition, while the Mormons could push their agenda without any serious consequences to their public image. The strategy was effective, and one they repeated during California’s Proposition 8 fight.

The alliance grows stronger with each passing year. Epitomizing the relationship is Princeton professor Robert P. George, one of the most influential Catholic conservative activists in the country, who partnered with the Mormon Church to create the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). He also joined the editorial advisory board of the Mormon Church-owned newspaper, the Deseret News. George is also the founder of the Witherspoon Institute (responsible for the debunked Mark Regnerus study – which was reported first by the Deseret News), was the primary author of the anti-LGBTQ Manhattan Declaration, and is one of the top national strategists leading the charge to redefine religious freedom into a sword religious institutions can use to force their doctrinal positions on individuals. This week, Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University awarded George an “honorary Doctor of Law and Moral Values” degree, calling him “one of the most able and articulate advocates of the proposition that faith and reason are not incompatible.”

Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Mormon Church’s 12 Apostles, has been deeply involved in the effort to redefine religious freedom. He sits on the board of the World Congress of Families, an international culture-warring collection of Religious Right organizations that works all over the world to use (redefined) religious freedom arguments to enact anti-LGBTQ and anti-reproductive health laws (such as the Russian law that criminalizes any positive speech about homosexuality). In recognition of his work with WCF and frequent speeches before conservative groups extoling the benefits of using one’s faith as an excuse to dodge pesky civil rights laws, Oaks received the 2013 “Canterbury Medal” for his “defense of religious liberty” from The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative Catholic legal organization responsible for the Hobby Lobby ruling at the Supreme Court and one of the top groups in the Right’s religious freedom campaign.

Speaking earlier this month at the Mormon Church’s semi-annual General Conference to all 15 million members worldwide, Oaks quoted a speech given by Philadelphia Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput at Brigham Young University. “Speaking of ‘concerns that the LDS and Catholic communities share,’ such as ‘about marriage and family, the nature of our sexuality, the sanctity of human life, and the urgency of religious liberty,’ he [Chaput] said this: ‘I want to stress again the importance of really living what we claim to believe. That needs to be a priority—not just in our personal and family lives but in our churches, our political choices, our business dealings, our treatment of the poor; in other words, in everything we do.’” Chaput continued, in his speech to BYU, “Religion is to democracy as a bridle is to a horse.”

“Religion is to democracy as a bridle is to a horse.”

Another of the Mormon Church’s top leaders, Henry B. Eyring, met with Chaput and Pope Francis in November 2014 at the Vatican. Eyring described their strengthening alliance and mutual dedication to opposing civil liberties for LGBTQ people and women, saying “I think the thing was, even with other faiths, they have exactly the same feeling that the root of good society is good families.” Another of the Mormon 12 Apostles, D. Todd Christofferson, will be one of the featured speakers later this year at the Catholic’s anti-LGBTQ World Meeting of Families, where the Pope will also be speaking.

The crowning, and perhaps most insidious, achievement thus far of the Mormon-Catholic alliance is the much-hailed Utah nondiscrimination/religious freedom law. While the Christian Right’s state-level Hobby-Lobbyized RFRAs (with their overt anti-LGBTQ intentions) have generated a significant national backlash (particularly in the cases of Indiana and Arizona) and are susceptible to court challenges, the Utah RFRA “lite” law actually won endorsements from LGBTQ groups. The Mormon Church enlisted the help of Christian Right operative Robin Fretwell Wilson, who works closely with right-wing Catholic groups like The Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom, to co-write the law. The end product was a bill written in such a way that LGBTQ groups hungry for a “win” in a Red state could claim victory in the form of a watered-down nondiscrimination law. The price—knowingly or otherwise—was the endorsement by high-profile LGBTQ groups of the Right’s false contention that religious freedom is somehow at odds with LGBTQ rights, requiring a compromise – or, as some LGBTQ groups described the creation of Utah’s law, “a collaboration.” Such endorsements have set a dangerous precedent for the advancement of RFRAs and other efforts to corrupt actual religious freedom in various state legislatures. Right-wing groups can (and do) point to LGBTQ support in Utah as a means of mainstreaming their agenda and deflating their opposition.

Catholic news agencies have hailed the “Mormon law” as a model to be repeated across the country. If that happens, we may well see more such pyrrhic victories, in which gains in non-discrimination legislation are overwhelmed by the emerging “right to discriminate” on the basis of religious convictions.. This is where compromising on the true meaning of religious freedom could lead. We may also see the Mormon Church emerge as a more prominent—albeit less public—partner of the evangelical and Catholic elements of the Christian Right as they continue their quest to corrupt the meaning of religious freedom.

Not All the Same: Christian Right’s Hobby Lobbyization of State RFRAs

Things hit the fan in the wake of the signing of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by Governor Mike Pence (R). He and other defenders of the bill argued that it was the same as the other state RFRAs, as well as the federal RFRA signed by President Clinton. Discrimination was not intended, so what was everyone so upset about?

The claim that the bill did not intend to protect discrimination collapsed, as many publications and LGBTQ civil rights activists (such as the Indiana ACLU) quickly proved that discrimination was exactly the intent. The resulting national controversy compelled Indiana to offer “clarifying” legislation.   But it is revealing how important it was to conservatives that the bill not be seen as discriminatory – using false claims about the federal and other state level RFRAs as a cover. But also revealing is their attempt to reinterpret the intentions of the authors of the federal and other state RFRAs.  This is of a piece with the long-term Christian Right campaign to redefine religious liberty in the country in terms favorable to their theocratic vision.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) is joined by Christian Right leaders as he signs the Hobby Lobbyized RFRA into law.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) is joined by Christian Right leaders as he signs the Hobby Lobbyized RFRA into law.

The way they went about it is instructive. Conservative Republican politicians, their apologists (such as New York Times columnist David Brooks), and allied groups suggested that the bills are essentially the same.  Even some Christian Right leaders like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council bent the truth, claiming that Indiana merely joined “19 other states in aligning themselves with federal religious freedom law.”  (Even though the state-level Christian Right leaders who backed the bill, and stood behind Gov. Pence when he signed it, have been clear about their intentions.)

The Times’ own reporting cited legal scholars, including Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke, who said that the Indiana is not the same as the federal law or the Illinois state law supported by President Obama when he served in the Illinois State Senate.

“[Franke] and other legal experts said the Indiana law expands the parties who could ask for relief on religious grounds to include a wider range of corporations, if individuals with ‘substantial control’ of the business share the same religious beliefs.

The Indiana measure also grants parties the right to bring legal action to prevent a ‘likely’ burden on religious belief, even before any burden is imposed. And it expands the situations in which the protection could be invoked to include disputes between private parties engaged in lawsuits, even if they do not involve any direct actions by a government agency.”

The fact is that the federal RFRA, and most of the past state RFRAs, apply only to government actions. The original purpose of the legislation was to restore individual religious liberty taken away by the Supreme Court in the case of Employment Division v Smith, which involved Native Americans being denied state unemployment benefits in Oregon because they had been fired for using the illegal drug peyote in traditional religious ceremonies. The Court ruled that they had no legal recourse, so Congress sought to narrowly set a standard essentially reversing the Smith decision.  A later Court ruling limited the reach of the federal RFRA to the actions of the federal government only, hence the beginning of the state level RFRAs.

However, since the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell Supreme Court ruling in 2014, Christian Right agencies like Alliance Defending Freedom, the Becket Fund, the Mormon Church, and their allies at the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, have pushed state level RFRAs that extend certain provisions to corporations and individuals allowing measures of discrimination in the face of religious claims that to provide services to LGBTQ people violates their consciences.

The Hobby Lobby case, for the first time, granted a private business religious standing under the First Amendment. In that case, the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores was allowed to claim a religious exemption from providing employees with healthcare insurance covering four kinds of contraceptives, because the company owners believe (medical science not withstanding) that they are abortifacients.

Borrowing language from the federal RFRA, on which the original case filed by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty was based, Justice Alito, writing for the majority, said the government’s requirement that Hobby Lobby provide this contraceptive coverage imposed a “substantial burden” on their religious liberty, and that there are ways of accomplishing the “compelling government interest” in ensuring that women have access to these drugs, by the “least restrictive means.”  Justice Ginsburg, writing in dissent, was concerned by the potential sweeping implications of the decision. “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood,” Ginsburg wrote, “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.”

The first of these Hobby Lobbyized RFRAs was passed in Arizona, but was ultimately vetoed by the governor. A similar bill was passed and signed into law in Mississippi, while other such bills have been stalled in other states.

Justice Ginsberg’s concerns are being realized in the efforts to insert Hobby Lobbyized provisions into state RFRAs.  What is curious is that are engaging in an odd and easily refutable historical revisionism in claiming that the Hobby Lobbyized RFRAs was the intention all along—even though the federal RFRA was passed in 1993.

The turning point in the national controversy was probably the debacle on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, when Governor Pence repeatedly claimed that the Indiana bill was the same as the others, and refused to say whether or not he supported anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

Pence claimed that the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into federal law by President Bill Clinton more than 20 years ago. And it lays out a framework for ensuring that a very high level of scrutiny is given any time government action impinges on the religious liberty of any American. After that, some 19 states followed that, adopted that statute. And after last year’s Hobby Lobby case, Indiana properly brought the same version that then state senator Barack Obama voted for in Illinois before our legislature. And I was proud to sign it into law last week.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on April 2nd that Pence’s talking points did not square with the facts. Pence is correct except that the Indiana bill is not the same as the federal RFRA and most of the state RFRA’s – including Illinois – but the post-Hobby Lobby timing is telling. The shorthand for the bill around the legislature was “the Hobby Lobby bill.”

In the wake of the controversy over the Indiana bill, Arkansas changed their proposed RFRA before it was passed to ensure that it could only be invoked in cases where the government is a party, just as in the federal version. While the struggle over the definition of religious freedom is far from over, the battle lines are becoming clearer.

Promoting Anti-LGBTQ Bullying in Schools: Focus on the Family’s “Day of Dialogue”

Though framed as a “free-speech initiative” dedicated to preserving students’ “religious freedom,” Focus on the Family’s annual Day of Dialogue functionally serves as an anti-LGBTQ promotional vehicle, encouraging and equipping young Christians to express condemnation of homosexuality and “transgenderism” to their LGBTQ peers.

Day of Dialogue (DoD) emerged as a response to the National Day of Silence (DoS), an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which aims to bring attention to anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools. Participants take a daylong vow of silence, symbolically representing the constant institutional silencing of LGBTQ students and their allies. This year’s DoS will be observed on April 17th. As is true every year, DoD is scheduled to take place the day before.

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Day of Silence: This youth-led advocacy campaign—valued by many as an important time of protest, reflection, remembrance, and solidarity—traces its history back to 1996, when a group of students at the University of Virginia organized the first DoS in response to a class assignment on nonviolent protests. Encouraged by the success of their event, UVA students Maria Pulzetti and Jessie Gilliam made it their mission to turn DoS into a nationwide campaign, and the following year, similar actions took place at nearly 100 college and university campuses. By 2008, students at over 8,000 schools across the country were making their silence felt, and the campaign has become increasingly widespread—DoS events are now organized around the world, in places like Russia, Singapore, and New Zealand.

Beginning in 2005, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund) launched the precursor to DoD—“Day of Truth,” an anti-LGBTQ response designed to “counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda.” Focus on the Family (FOTF) took over and rebranded the project in 2010.

Decrying Day of Silence as anti-Christian intolerance, FOTF argues that “students who dare to share a biblical viewpoint are made to feel like they’re doing something illegal.” In effect, they are trying to flip the script on who’s oppressed and who’s oppressive in order to defend anti-LGBTQ bullying. While DoD materials explicitly denounce bullying, as Zach Ford, editor of ThinkProgress LGBT at the Center for American Progress, points out, “Even if DoD participants do not attack or harass their targets, the stigma they encourage through condemning homosexuality helps maintain an unsafe climate for students with consequences that can last a lifetime.”

Sadly, anti-LGBTQ stigma needs no encouragement. While many LGBTQ advocates have celebrating significant legal gains (such as marriage equality) across the country in the last few years, schools continue to be hostile and dangerous environments for LGBTQ young people—who may face bullying or intimidation by fellow students, teachers, administration officials, or other students’ parents. According to GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, 74 percent of LGBT youth nationwide were verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 55 percent because of their gender expression. As a result of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, 30 percent missed at least one day of school in the past month alone.

Homo lockerAnd the consequences of an anti-LGBTQ climate are real and devastating: students who have experienced prejudice-motivated bullying and victimization are more likely to attempt suicide, become clinically depressed, or contract a sexually transmitted disease by early adulthood.

In response to overwhelming evidence that LGBTQ young people are disproportionately targeted for bullying and harassment (and the tragic consequences of this persecution), social justice advocates have been rallying support for the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) since 2010.

Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which addressed discrimination on the basis of sex, SNDA would expressly prohibit discriminatory treatment towards students on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools. While federal statutory protections currently address discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and disability, no such federal protections exist for LGBTQ people. As the National Center for Lesbian Rights explains, SNDA seeks to address this discrimination loophole [for public school students] by providing them with “meaningful legal recourse and effective remedial option in a manner that is similar to other civil rights claims made under the 14th Amendment.”

However, the Religious Right—backed by a coalition of right-wing legal institutions, including ADF, the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), Liberty Council, and The Becket Fund—argues that Christians are the true victims of persecution in need of protection—in bakeries, in flower shops, and in schools across the country (reinforcing their false framework of Christianity vs LGBTQ people, which completely discounts the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ people who are also Christian). This is the oppositional force behind the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) laws that are cropping up in state after state—laws that functionally aim to redefine religious liberty as a right to discriminate on the basis of an individual’s beliefs or non-beliefs. This corruption of religious freedom protections from something that once served as a shield to protect individual beliefs into something that is increasingly used as a sword of religious authoritarianism is a threat to anyone who falls outside of the Religious Right’s narrowly defined moral vacuum and the very foundation of pluralism the U.S. was built upon.

While bullying, harassment, violence, and isolation continue to prematurely end the lives of LGBTQ young people, the organizers of DoD insist that young Christians are the real martyrs. As part of their ongoing effort to paint Christians as innocent victims of the “homosexual agenda,” ADF has pledged to provide pro-bono legal assistance to any DoD participants who “encounter unconstitutional roadblocks to their free speech rights.”

Sadly, free speech is only a privilege of the living. Had suicide not robbed us of their presence, Taylor Alesana, Tyler Clementi, Blake Brockington, Seth Walsh, Maddie Beard, and countless other young LGBTQ victims of suicide would probably have a lot to say about who is being persecuted and who is not.

The overlooked Indiana outcomes that could haunt the Christian Right

I think there are two underreported features of the fallout from Indiana that we should make sure do not get lost in the hoo ha.

One is that people are getting it that religious freedom does not and must not equal the right to discriminate. The other is that people are also broadening and deepening their understanding of what they basically already know:  the Christian Right’s view on these things is not shared by all of Christianity.

The Indiana RFRA, as originally written, allowed people to invoke their religious beliefs to deny commercial services to LGBTQ people – but Republican political leaders did not want to admit it. History may recognize Governor Pence’s disastrous interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week as a turning point, not only in the battle over the state’s RFRA, but in the struggle over the definition of religious freedom in our times.

Stephanopoulos repeatedly sought to get Pence to say how the bill did not constitute discrimination and whether or not he himself supported discrimination, but each time the Governor awkwardly weaseled his way out of answering the question.

Meanwhile, the state faced economic boycotts, street demonstrations, a skeptical press, and the RFRA faced a rising chorus of denunciation from a wide range of groups and individuals across the country—including the Republican Mayor of Indianapolis.

The state legislature and Gov. Pence quickly changed course and passed a “clarification,” while publicly explaining that their religious freedom law did not equal discrimination and that this was not their intention.

While not perfect, the legislative clarification barred a religious liberty defense by businesses accused of discrimination for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity – although it does allow religious non-profit organizations to continue to discriminate.

The Christian Right, which had supported the original bill, was outraged. What good is a religious freedom bill if it doesn’t give you the right to discriminate?  That is the question – since a central strategy of the Christian Right in recent years has been to reframe issues of reproductive rights and homosexuality in terms of religious freedom.

I reported here (before the Indiana RFRA blew up) that 50 Catholic and evangelical leaders, including National Organization for Marriage founder Robert P. George and Baptist megachurch Pastor Rick Warren, signed a 2015 anti-marriage equality manifesto that essentially argued that anyone who supports or in any way accommodates same-sex marriage cannot call themselves a Christian.

They also claimed that acceptance of marriage equality is the result of a “deceptive pseudo-freedom that degrades our ­humanity.  Genuine freedom,” they concluded, “is found in ­obedience to God’s order.”

This notion is not unique to the pre-Indiana ideologues. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council denounced the clarification.

Remarkably, he blamed “Big Business” and “the intolerant Left” for “gutting” religious freedom in Indiana, and empowering “the government to impose punishing fines on people for following their beliefs about marriage.”

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who leads the religious liberty committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops are undeterred.

“Individual or family-owned businesses as well as religious institutions should have the freedom to serve others consistent with their faith,” Lori said in a statement.

What Lori meant of course, is that people who believe as he does should have the right to refuse service to people they do not approve of.

A second feature of the Indiana debacle, which we should not lose sight of, is that the Christian Right is losing the battle for the public perception that its views on religious freedom and LGBTQ people represent all of Christianity.

The Christian Right has never represented all of Christianity of course, and the Indiana episode provided us with an outstanding example.

Even before the sports organizations, businesses, and celebrities, one of the first national organizations to speak out against the Indiana RFRA was The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainline Protestant denomination with a half-million members, headquartered in Indianapolis.

The church’s denunciation of the bill was widely reported. Ultimately, the Disciples pulled their 2017 convention out of the state in protest over the law, the likely inadequacies of the then planned clarification, and the state’s lack of anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and sexual identity.

“As a Christian church, we affirm and support religious freedom,” General Minister and President Sharon Watkins said in a prepared statement. “It is, in fact, a core principle…  We are also strongly committed to an inclusive community — just as Jesus welcomed all to the table.”

The Christian Right’s strategy has suffered some powerful losses of late. It is good to take notice.

UPDATE: Since I first published this piece, the Disciples of Christ has decided to return their 2017 convention to Indianapolis.  Sharon Watkins wrote:

Locating our assembly in Indianapolis, now that our concerns have been addressed, positions us more strongly as a moral voice in the movement for equal protection under the law for all.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will continue to advocate for wholeness and dignity for all people. We are a church of an open table where all are welcome in Christ’s name.

Indianapolis is now a more welcoming place for all our assembly-goers than it was when we originally decided on Indianapolis for our 2017 site.

Christian Right Culture Warriors Don’t Understand the Word “Family”

U.S. conservatives culture warriors have a busy 2015 scheduled. Pope Francis will be in Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families, and then the international culture-warring World Congress of Families will be in Utah in October. At these meetings, the word “family” will be used to demonize LGBTQ individuals and women. Oddly, the meaning of the word “family” will be assumed but not defined.

On Human Rights Day 2014, I joined a panel to speak before the United Nations under the theme “Love is a Family Value.” The theme was nicely chosen to debunk the misuse of the phrase “family values” by anti-LGBTQ and anti-women’s health activists who claim that sexual minorities and women’s rights are anti-family. To them, defending the “traditional family” means demonizing sexual minorities, women, and those who advocate equality and justice for all human beings.

It is important to define what is meant by “family,” because as the U.S. Right’s talking points are exported around the globe verbatim, there is no nuance as the words take on different meanings in different cultures. U.S. conservatives are quick to define it in narrow and gendered terms: the man should control the woman, while the woman should care for children, and thus father, mother, and children. As U.S. culture warriors working on the international scene, such as Sharon Slater of Family Watch International, advocate for their flawed interpretation abroad, the words are even more damaging than they are in the Western world, where they can be tossed aside as obvious rhetoric and hyperbole. In African communities, the word “family” means something very different. Across the continent in various nations, communities, and cultures, the phrase “extended family” does not even exist. Rather, “the family” encompasses every person to whom you are related, regardless of how remote—brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews, second cousins, second cousins twice removed, etc. The list is endless.

Inclusive families

It is this family I am obliged to defend—and my gay uncle, niece, or cousin is still part of my family just as my child is! In my language for instance, umuntu wandi (literally, “my person”) is used for the family. What holds an African family together is not who one has sex with (as the Right wants us to believe), but love. When my friend David Kato was murdered, his family was broken, and stood by him. This picture is visible across Africa when LGBTQ people are killed—their families are destroyed too.

The Christian Right wants us to accept its definition of the family as final. Yet the family grows as humans learn to value other people’s humanity. Not long ago, women, Native Americans, and people who looked like me were considered less human. In fact, millions of Africans were exported as natural goods across the globe. Those who stood up to defend Black people were labeled as destroyers of civilization and the tradition upon which America was founded. The Bible, and in some cases the Koran, were also used to justify slavery, subordination of women, and colonization of Black people. Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and (my daughter’s favorite) Susan B. Anthony were all accused of destroying the family. Dr. King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and many White allies who fought for equality of the races were considered terrorists by the U.S. Christian Right. But such demonization did not stop them from demanding justice for the entire human family—today, these human rights defenders are idolized for doing what was right though not popular!

Love is a human and family value and ought not to be a crime—it is inherent in each one of us. To deny others the ability to love and to be loved is to rob them of their family life. It is to force them into hating themselves, as well as into life-denying situations, and ultimately to sentence them to death. It is this reality that racists and religious fundamentalists still fail to accept. It was once a crime for Blacks to marry Whites here in the U.S. and in various European colonies. Sacred scriptures (and the mantra of defending traditional family values) were corrupted to justify such injustice. Many families and lives were lost as a result. But today, interracial marriages are celebrated just as any other marriage—even if there are still those individuals or religions who believe it is wrong.

Love is what makes a family. Throughout the Christian traditions, the Church has always understood the “family” as diverse. One good example is “the family” we find in religious communities (convents and monasteries) in various Christian Churches. In the Roman Catholic tradition for example, monks and nuns belong to the specific family. His Holiness Pope Francis belongs to a family of Jesuits—just as countless other monks and nuns do. One makes the choice to commit to such a lifestyle. If defending the traditional family means forcing everyone into heterosexual marriage, then monks and nuns can be said to be a threat to the family.

The Center for Families & Human Rights’ headline of our meeting at the U.N. was accurate:  “LGBT Activists Meet at UN, Promise to Keep Fighting.” Until hate is conquered by love across the globe, we will fight to defend love as a family value. Just as the world fought slavery, racism, sexism, and many other isms, we will keep fighting to defend the human family from any form of discrimination.

RELATED: Click the image to watch Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma speak at the U.N. on families.

RELATED: Click the image to watch Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma speak at the U.N. on families.

Like the rainbow, the human family has always been diverse! Anti-gay activists should understand that homophobia does not defend families, it destroys it. To defend the family should mean supporting loving relations in human communities. We are one human family—Black, White, Brown, Asian, straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, etc.—we all have a special place in the human family. To claim to defend the family while destroying our fellow human beings because of who they love and commit to live their lives with is hypocritical. We all have the duty to defend love over hate. It is not long ago that Jews and Tutsis were robbed of their place in the human family! The result is genocide. Is it not time we stood together and said enough is enough, one more life is too much?

Sexual minorities are not pleading for special rights or benefits. They are just seeking to take their own family’s rightful place at the table, free from fear or persecution. It is this family value that we must all protect, defend and uphold—for love is a family value worth defending and, in the case of many African sexual minorities, worth dying for!