WASHINGTON (BP)–Five U.S. congressmen have submitted a letter to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni urging that he do everything within his constitutional authority to stop proposed anti-homosexuality legislation from becoming law in the African nation.
The legislation has drawn intense criticism from various international settings as it threatens to penalize a single act of homosexual behavior with a life sentence or a mandatory death penalty if the person is HIV-positive.
The five congressmen, all Republicans, wrote to Museveni Dec. 22 in their capacity as ranking members of the House’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, but their appeal was based largely on their Christian faith, which Museveni shares.
Reps. Frank Wolf of Virginia, Chris Smith of New Jersey, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, Trent Franks of Arizona and Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana referenced the Manhattan Declaration, signed in November by more than 140 leaders representing various branches of American Christianity.
“As members of Congress, and as men of faith, we support the principles set forth in the Manhattan Declaration and are thankful for the principled position of these faith leaders on a host of issues, from the sanctity of life for the unborn and others, to religious freedom, to human dignity, to the belief that marriage is an institution between one man and one woman,” the letter said.
People of faith, the congressmen said, have a moral obligation to be involved in the public square and have been instrumental in moral victories including the abolition of slavery, racial desegregation and the end of apartheid.
“Often times these individuals were propelled by a foundational Christian belief in the inherent dignity and worth of all men and women,” the letter said. “We believe this legislation, if enacted, would be antithetical to that premise.”
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, introduced in October, would expand the punishment for homosexual behavior, which currently is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment in Uganda. The bill also would require authority figures to report homosexuals within 24 hours of discovering their behavior, and if they fail to do so, such officials could be punished with up to three years in prison.
The congressmen reiterated what Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship, Robert George of Princeton University and Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School –- three architects of the Manhattan Declaration -– previously stated in a letter to Ugandan faith leaders as they expressed “grave concern.”
“The harshness of the proposals is, we believe, inconsistent with a Christian spirit of love and mercy,” the three men wrote, and the congressmen repeated.
Reuters reported Dec. 23 that Uganda may soften the proposed legislation, limiting the maximum penalty for offenders to life in prison rather than execution.
“There have been a lot of discussions in government … regarding the proposed law, but we now think a life sentence could be better because it gives room for offenders to be rehabilitated,” Nsaba Buturo, Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, told Reuters. “Killing them might not be helpful.”
Buturo denied, though, that pressure from Western nations led to the reconsideration.
“It’s really out of our consultation with various groups, including religious leaders,” Buturo said. “It has nothing to do with external forces.”
Uganda, he told Reuters, has not changed its view that homosexuality is a moral perversion that must not be allowed to spread. Reuters also passed along a report by the Daily Monitor, a local independent newspaper in Uganda, that said Museveni had assured U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson that he would block the anti-homosexuality bill.
“While we understand that the legislation is being amended, we still urge you to oppose it,” the five congressmen told Museveni.
Debate on the legislation was scheduled to begin once members of parliament returned from their Christmas break.
Various media reports, including one by The New York Times Jan. 4, have laid blame for the legislation at the feet of three American evangelicals who led a three-day seminar in March on the negative aspects of homosexuality. Thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, attended the event, The Times said.
The three American speakers were Scott Lively, a missionary who has written several books on homosexuality; Caleb Lee Brundidge, a former homosexual who helps lead others out of the lifestyle; and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International, a Christian ministry that assists people in overcoming same-sex attractions.
Schmierer told The Times he feels “duped,” having been asked to speak at the conference on parenting skills for families with homosexual children, to now be blamed for sparking the anti-homosexual fervor that led to the proposed law. Lively and Brundidge also have expressed disapproval of the legislation.
But because the Ugandans who helped organize the conference also reportedly helped draft the legislation, gay rights groups in Uganda and elsewhere are blaming American evangelicals for the controversy.
A Zambian commentator who has researched the connection between the African anti-homosexual movement and American evangelicals told The Times the three Americans may have “underestimated the homophobia in Uganda” and “what it means to African when you speak about a certain group trying to destroy their children and their families.”
Given his influence among pastors in Uganda, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., posted an open letter at rickwarren.com and a video on youtube.com to express his belief that the potential law is “unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals.”
Warren, who believes marriage is a union between one man and one woman, said the law would have “a chilling effect” on church ministries to hurting people because it would require pastors to report homosexuals to authorities.
“As an American pastor, it is not my role to interfere with the politics of other nations, but it is my role to speak out on moral issues,” Warren told the pastors as he urged them to oppose the legislation.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.