Senate Dems Pass, Ashburn Opposes, Uganda Condemnation SR 51

Posted on 03 September 2010

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By Dan Aiello
California Progress Report

In the last hours of the legislative session, Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF) successfully shepherded a resolution condemning the government of Uganda for the African nation's escalating persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people after finding the 21 floor votes needed to pass the measure. 

Conservative Republican Senator Roy Ashburn, who recently admitted he was gay, voted against the resolution.

A similar House Resolution authored by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-SF) was scheduled for a vote when the legislature reconvenes for the budget. Both Uganda resolutions are part of a package of 14 bills sponsored by Equality California this year.

Introduced by Leno (D-San Francisco) as a non-binding resolution, SR 51 urges the U.S. government to intensify its efforts to support the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide. The resolution also calls upon the Federal government to use thorough vetting procedures before funding faith-based organizations that may encourage or support anti-gay or sexist policies of the host nation and its government. The resolution also encourages all faith-based organizations in the U.S. to support the creation of policies in other countries that do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

California's GOP senators, including Ashburn, unanimously opposed the resolution.  Equality California's Geoff Kors told California Progress Report GOP legislators largely cited the resolution's language critical of the American religious leaders and organizations that have supported the anti-gay policies of the Uganda government. 

"The resolution mentions them because that's what's happening over there.  It's too bad, but that's the reality," said Kors. 

In fact, it was the 'no' vote of Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), the conservative Republican Senator who came out as a gay man earlier this year, that stirred the hushed conversations of SR 51 supporters, lobbyists and legislative staff outside the chamber's great oak doors and inside the Capitol's legislative offices following the vote Monday afternoon. 

"If you take a look at the resolution, most of it does not address what is taking place within Uganda, with the laws and the government there, which is outrageous," Ashburn told the California Progress Report. "Most of [SR 51] deals with the US-based faith-based organizations and it may well be true that there are religious organizations that have missionaries in Uganda who are against homosexuals but the point is it's the Uganda government and its officials that ought to be the focus of the resolution."

One of the American spiritual leaders linked to Uganda's pre-genocidal policy is California Christian leader, Rick Warren, and his Southern California "Saddleback" ministry. Warren is author of "Purpose-driven life," and has  declared Uganda a "Purpose-driven nation." While Warren last year began to publicly distance himself from Uganda's death penalty for homosexuality, Martin Ssempa, a frequent guest speaker at Saddleback, and C. Peter Wagner, Warren's dissertation advisor from seminary, are considered the chief parliamentarian forces behind the intensifying criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda. Ssempa has led pentecostal pastors across Uganda in stirring fear and anger against homosexuals, according to the NY Times.  

When asked about the possibility that California faith-based organizations may have played a role in developing Uganda's capitol punishment law for homosexuality Leno replied, "If there is definitive proof that any California or American church is in fact fanning the flames of this political witch hunt in Uganda, then I believe they should be held to account for what is happening there." 

The Advocate reported Warren has made public statements in Uganda media that he opposes homosexuality, saying it is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right, adding, "We shall not tolerate this aspect, at all." His statements have helped fuel the anti-gay furor in the country.

Warren's assistant said the Pastor Rick "will not be commenting at all," on the passage of SR 51 when reached yesterday by CPR. 

In a statement to Newsweek this month, Warren declined to condemn the pending Uganda legislation:

"The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator," Warren said. "However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."  Warren was finally pushed to oppose the legislation in a video address to Uganda pastors.

"To focus on religious organizations in this country instead of on the Uganda government is misguided," Ashburn told CPR. "This resolution paints with a brush that is so broad. It mentions faith-based organizations, but what is a faith based organization in the first place? Is it organized religion or is it a loosely-based group? There are many, many people whose hearts we are trying to touch to see us as  equal and most of them, most people in this country, are religious. For this resolution to focus on religiously-based organizations, well I believe this resolution will be seen as an attack on them," Ashburn said.

"I absolutely decry what is taking place in Uganda, but this resolution has the potential of driving people away. It has broad, negative connotations." Ashburn said he made his concerns known early on, but they were not reflected in the final resolution. "I tried to suggest an alternative course before it was finalized and my ideas were rejected. I saw the draft and made specific suggestions. I think that this resolution will drive people away from what is an outrageous policy in Uganda."

Kors, who noted Ashburn has supported 11 of EQCA's 14 bills this year, called the Senator's failure to support the Uganda resolution, "extremely disappointing.  The resolution was clear that only some churches were involved and that's what's happening and it's important to highlight the truth. I think it's really unfortunate that he didn't support the resolution and I hope he will advocate against what is happening in Uganda," Kors said.  

"I boil at the idea of any government anywhere on the planet putting someone to death because they are gay," said Ashburn, who believes "The United States government should do everything within its power" to stop the Uganda government from killing gay people. But Ashburn told CPR he felt SR 51 misses its mark.

"Most people whose hearts we are trying to win consider themselves to have faith, to be faith-based, and this resolution primarily attacks the faith-based. This resolution is like an unguided missle taking a swipe at them and in the process missing its target, namely the government of Uganda. This resolution has the potential of driving people away. People are going to say, 'My god, gay people are religious haters. My view of homosexuality is based on love and who we love and this resolution is based on anger," said Ashburn.

The Uganda legislation is stalled in that country because of international pressure like California's SR 51 condemnation, according to international news media.

Asked if he, as a legislator, struggles with finding the line between the first amendment right protecting free speech and accountability for those, like religious leaders and faith-based groups whose incendiary hate speech can often incite anti-gay or racist violence like that experienced by LGBT Californians during the Prop 8 campaign or by the Latino community of California during the Prop 187 campaign, Leno said, "that is a line that will always be debated in a free society, but we all know too well the cruel and devastating affects of hate speech."   

Leno said SR 51 came about this May, when Uganda Bishop Christopher of Uganda and Bishop Robinson visited the capitol and met with Senate Pro Tempore, Darrell Steinberg, and others legislators. "We asked them, how can we help with your efforts and their response was having the State of California officially condemn the pending law would be enormously beneficial," Leno told CPR. 

SR 51 does address the U.S. taxpayer-funded faith-based organization's operating in Uganda for their anti-gay political rhetoric. Before the Bush Administration's 'faith-based' initiative program, which progressives argue has effectively blurred the nation's historic separation of church and state, religious organizations were not eligible to apply for U.S. humanitarian grants. Advocates claim the separation of Church and State remains under attack by conservatives, pointing to last year's Texas board of eduation removal of any reference to Thomas Jefferson, the founding father credited with the separation idea, from the lone star state's history books.

The links between American-based evangelical and pentecostal ministries and the Uganda officials promoting the death penalty for homosexuality concern human rights groups who believe the U.S. organizations have exported their bias against homosexuals while in Uganda providing taxpayer funded humanitarian aid.  What influence they have had in the Ugandan government's pending law assigning the death penalty to anyone convicted of "aggravated homosexuality," or repeated offense, remains a matter of debate, but evangelical and pentecostal leadership from the United States are largely credited with "inspiring" the legislation. The pending law has drawn international condemnation from national and state governments and human rights organizations worldwide.

“The U.S. government must do everything in its power to stop the bill before the Uganda legislature that would lead to the criminalization and even death of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans,” said Kors. “The California Senate has taken an important step in passing this resolution, which will help raise awareness of the crisis in Uganda and will put the state on record in support of the U.S. government strengthening its efforts to end the criminalization of LGBT people worldwide.”

“It is egregious that radical religious leaders from our nation are working to spread fears about and discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Uganda,” said Sen. Leno. “These deplorable actions have encouraged violence, and even death against Ugandans. This resolution is a simple human rights appeal urging President Obama and our federal leaders to call for the decriminalization of LGBT people, not only in Uganda, but across the globe.”

The Obama administration has made its opposition to the Uganda legislation known.  In a speech before George Washington University faculty and students last year, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined what she described as the administration's human rights agenda for the 21st century, the Secretary of State singled out Uganda as an example of what our nation's foreign policy must stand against.

"Governments should be expected to resist the temptation to restrict freedom of expression when criticism arises, and be vigilant in preventing law from becoming an instrument of oppression, as bills like the one under consideration in Uganda to criminalize homosexuality would do," Clinton said.  

"Of course, people must be free from the oppression of tyranny, from torture, from discrimination, from the fear of leaders who will imprison or “disappear” them," stated Clinton. But they must also be free from the oppression of want," said Clinton, including, "want of equality in law and in fact." Clinton concluded that every person, "Must be free to pursue the dignity that comes with self-improvement and self-reliance, to build their minds and their skills, bring their goods to the marketplace, and participate in the process of innovation. "


Dan Aiello reports for the California Progress Report.