Monday, November 23, 2009

Episcopal News Service: Uganda's proposed anti-homosexuality bill causes concern and caution

By Matthew Davies of the Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] A proposed bill currently before the Ugandan Parliament that, if passed, would extend prison sentences for homosexuals and introduce the death penalty in certain cases has generated outrage from a number of religious groups while some Anglican leaders are being more cautious with their responses.
"The Episcopal Church, like the Anglican Communion as a whole, is very clear in its support for the human rights of all people, including gay and lesbian persons," said Alexander Baumgarten, director of the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations. "For us in the Episcopal Church, that means we oppose all abuses of human rights, whether in our own midst or in other parts of the world, and we seek to make that opposition known through our ministry of advocacy."

The Chicago Consultation on Nov. 20 called on four prominent church leaders to raise their voices in opposition to the bill.

In letters sent to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and Archbishop Henri Orombi of Uganda, the consultation called the bill "draconian anti-gay legislation" and urged the leaders to speak out against it.

Baumgarten noted that for the past several weeks, the Episcopal Church "has encouraged Episcopalians who have contacted us on this issue to be in touch with their own elected officials. As of the present moment, we are very encouraged by the engagement of the U.S. State Department, which has called the law a 'significant step backwards for human rights,' and has given public assurances that it is addressing the matter with the Ugandan government. It is our understanding that neither the Ugandan government nor the Church of the Province of Uganda (Anglican) has taken a position on this legislation."

Homosexuality is currently illegal in Uganda and carries a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment. If passed, the proposed bill would extend the punishment to life imprisonment and introduce the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," which includes assault against people under the age of 18 and those with disabilities.

Numerous human rights organizations have criticized the bill, first introduced on Oct. 13, saying it would criminalize the work of national and international activists and organizations working for the defense and promotion of human rights in Uganda.

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and Jesus teaches us to care for the vulnerable and the marginalized. The proposed Ugandan legislation is as far from those commandments as it could be," said the Rev. Lowell Grisham, co-convener of the Chicago Consultation, according to a Nov. 20 press release. "The Anglican Communion has committed itself to the pastoral care of gay and lesbian people. At a time like this, we implore its leaders to speak out."

According to its website, the Chicago Consultation is "a group of Episcopal and Anglican bishops, clergy and lay people, [that] supports the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion."

The consultation notes that the bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, in Resolution 1.10, committed themselves to the pastoral care of gays and lesbians and that the Episcopal Church's General Convention 2006 passed Resolution D005 opposing the criminalization of homosexuality.

The Anglican Church of Canada's Council of General Synod on Nov. 15 expressed its dismay and concern about the draft legislation, saying that the proposed bill "would severely impede the human rights of Ugandan citizens both at home and abroad by infringing freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, freedom of organization, and legitimate advocacy of civil rights. It would impose excessive and cruel penalties on persons who experience same-sex attraction as well as those who counsel, support, and advise them, including family members and clergy."

The Anglican Church of Uganda on Nov. 6 issued a press release saying that it is studying the bill and does not yet have an official position on the proposed legislation. However, the release restated the Ugandan church's position that "homosexual behavior is immoral and should not be promoted, supported, or condoned in any way as an 'alternative lifestyle.'"

Ekklesia, which describes itself as "an independent, not-for-profit think-tank which examines the role of religion in public life," is calling on Christians around the world to sign a petition in opposition of the bill. Launched Nov. 19, the petition calls upon the Archbishop of Canterbury "to end his silence on the matter, to condemn the bill in public and to urge Ugandan Christians to oppose it."

"Across North America, Europe and Africa, people of goodwill oppose this draconian legislation," the Chicago Consultation's Grisham said. "But within the Anglican Communion, only the Church of Canada has found its voice. We are eager to hear our leaders speak out on behalf of frightened, isolated and persecuted gays and lesbians in Uganda, and on behalf of all Anglicans who believe in the dignity of every human being."

-- Matthew Davies is editor and international correspondent of the Episcopal News Service.

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