Outlawing Homosexuality in Belize

The Alliance Defending Freedom (until last year Alliance Defense Fund) is a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based legal organization founded in 1994 by 30 prominent Christian leaders in response to what they saw as “growing attacks on religious freedom.” A powerhouse with an annual budget of more than $30 million, the ADF’s website says it works “tirelessly to advocate for the right of people to freely live out their faith in America and around the world.”

With a staff of 44 lawyers and an additional 2,200 who are allied with the organization, the ADF works globally because it sees “a risk of winning a domestic battle while potentially – in time – losing the world.” Among other things, the group is dedicated to protecting students’ freedom of religion, human life from the moment of conception, and traditional marriage. Its website states that it is active in 31 foreign countries and describes a number of global initiatives. But one aspect of its international work goes unmentioned.

For three years, a ferocious legal and public relations battle has been waged in Belize, a Central American country of some 356,00 people, over an existing criminal statute that can lead to imprisonment for private sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex. The fight is over the constitutionality of Section 53 of Belize’s criminal code, which prescribes a 10-year sentence for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal.” The ADF and a few other hard-line U.S.-based religious-right groups have joined this fight, providing legal and other advice to those seeking to keep LGBT sex illegal in as many countries as possible.

Although Belize is small, the stakes of the legal battle are high. Belize is already a hotbed of anti-gay hatred in a region where a dozen other countries have similar anti-sodomy statutes on the books. Violence aimed at LGBT people is prevalent, and hatred for the LGBT community is apparent. Graffiti on a major structure in downtown Belize City, for example, says, “Kill the Faggots.” The country’s immigration code bars LGBT people, along with the disabled or mentally ill. The outcome of the Belize case is likely to affect the life of the LGBT community not just in Belize, but throughout the Caribbean and the Commonwealth of Nations. 

The ADF’s legal work in Belize is an odd initiative for an organization committed, by name, to “defending freedom.” Nowhere does the ADF explain how jailing members of the LGBT community furthers its goals of protecting “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” Indeed, the ADF so far has refused to answer any questions about its Belize initiative, one that puts it at odds with an increasing number of prominent, mainstream Christian organizations.  

A Global Battle

The legal battle in Belize is only the latest in a wider struggle that is simultaneously being waged in countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, among other regions. Overturning Section 53 in Belize could presage the upending of similar statutes in another dozen countries that belong to the Commonwealth of former British colonies, particularly those in the Caribbean, where several countries are part of a single legal system that culminates in the Caribbean Court of Justice. It is also part of an even larger international battle, with the United Nations increasingly pressuring nations, including Belize, to live up to commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that took effect in 1976 and outlaws discrimination of many kinds but does not specifically mention sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Section 53 case began in September 2010 when a Belizean man, Caleb Orozco, and his LGBT-rights organization, United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), jointly filed suit in the Supreme Court of Judicature, Belize’s highest national court. UNIBAM’s lawyers argue that Section 53 violates provisions of the Constitution of Belize that recognize individual rights to human dignity, to be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with one’s privacy, and to equal protection under the law.

Because of his activism, Orozco’s life is now at risk. The situation is so dangerous that he lives and works out of a fortified office. At a court appearance in May, he was protected by armed guards. On the road, his car is met with shouts of “faggot” and a hail of garbage. He has been physically assaulted in the streets and threatened with death. He is so vulnerable, in fact, that his lawyers openly worry about having Orozco as the only plaintiff in their civil case; they need a back-up in the event of his assassination.

It’s not only the opponents of gay rights who are getting help from abroad. UNIBAM is supported by the International Commission of Jurists, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, and the London-based Human Dignity Trust, all of which have filed briefs supporting Orozco’s case and have official status as “interested parties.” The American Embassy in Belize, too, has supported UNIBAM, providing money both to battle anti-LGBT perceptions and to help those with HIV.

In the May hearing before Belize’s chief justice, one of UNIBAM’s lawyers, Trinidadian Christopher Hamel-Smith, argued that Section 53 presents a man like Orozco with “an intolerable choice, which no citizen should ever have to make, to live as a law-abiding citizen by suppressing his sexuality, or abandon all hope of ever living as a law-abiding citizen.” He added that the effect of the criminal statute was to deprive Belize’s LGBT community of equal protection of the law.

UNIBAM and its lawyers also have argued that Belize’s anti-LGBT laws, like those of many other nations, are simply leftovers from the laws against “buggery” (anal sex) that were imposed by the British. In essence, they are saying that anti-gay legislation is a remnant of colonialism unrelated to Belize’s native culture.

On the other side, defending Section 53 and its criminalization of gay sex, is the government, including both the prime minister and the attorney general, and an alliance called Church Interested Parties (CIP). CIP includes the Roman Catholic Church in Belize, the Belize Church of England Corporate Body and the local Evangelical Association of Churches.

Standing with the pro-criminalization forces are U.S. groups and individuals that have rushed to join the fight. A local group, Belize Action, is headed by Waco, Texas-born Christian missionary Scott Stirm, who has railed against the “unacceptable” gay lifestyle, attacked alleged LGBT efforts to “go into the schools and teach our kids,” and claimed that gay tourists come to Belize for “a new exotic location in which to corrupt local youth for a dollar or two.”

One U.S. group, Extreme Prophetic Ministries of Phoenix, lists support for Belize Action as one of its projects. Led by Patricia King, the ministry has been known to pray in mortuaries in an effort to raise the dead. One of its ministers, Caleb Lee Brundridge, reportedly traveled to Uganda in 2009 for an anti-gay conference that helped promote a proposed “kill the gays” law there.

Belize Action’s website links to various U.S. activists who oppose gay rights. Those include anti-gay “researcher” Paul Cameron, who has produced a series of defamatory and entirely bogus “studies” that purport to show the depravity, violence and disease associated with homosexuality.

Both Belize Action and Extreme Prophetic Ministries declined to discuss their activities.

Representing the Haters

Belize Action’s website has said repeatedly that lawyers supplied by both the ADF and the New York City- and Washington-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) have joined the court fight. “The Christian Community has obtained the legal services of int’l attorneys Terry McKeegan, Piero Tozzi and Brian Raum from CFAM and ADF, International catholic [sic] and evangelical organizations that assist in fighting abortion and homosexuality cases internationally,” said one such post.

Though the ADF is coy about its work in Belize on its website, its views on Belize have leaked out. Without mentioning its role in the case, the ADF sent out an “Alliance Alert” last December that updated the battle in Belize. It highlighted a rally by Belize Action against “the homosexual agenda of UNIBAM” under the headline, “Christians ‘Stand Firm’ Against UNIBAM.” On its website, the ADF says it went into international work because “radical international allies” of groups like the ACLU have been working to foist a “pro-homosexual agenda on the Body of Christ in Europe, Canada, Latin America, and elsewhere.” It complains that these groups are pushing for “radical new ‘rights’ that will advance the homosexual agenda, destroy marriage and undermine religious freedom.” In response, the ADF says, it “coordinates, funds, and litigates important cases with our global allies that have the potential to set legal precedents that could silence and punish Christians.” Its most recent available tax returns say it spent $65,000 on “human rights legal work” in Central America and the Caribbean in 2009 and 2010.

Though the group’s role in Belize is absent from its website, the ADF, like many prominent American religious-right groups, has supported criminalization in the past in this country. In the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case, the ADF submitted an amicus brief supporting the U.S. sodomy laws that were ultimately struck down in Texas and 13 other states. The same year, ADF President Alan Sears wrote a book, The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today, that is still sold by the ADF. In it, Sears complains that “once one state law protecting marriage and regulating sex is found to be unconstitutional, all others are fair game, such as laws against pedophilia, sex between close relatives, polygamy, bestiality and all other distortions and violations of God’s plan.” Overturning the sodomy laws, he added, would cause “desensitization toward deviant behavior.”

Like the ADF, C-FAM is heavily focused on global anti-LGBT work, charging that international law is advancing a “radical social agenda” that needs to be stopped. It has claimed that UN efforts to further LGBT rights will lead to “hate crime charges being brought against Christians” who oppose “the homosexual agenda.” In 2012, its president, Austin Ruse, attacked a UN global study of anti-LGBT violence, saying it was a “dishonest” ploy to legitimize homosexuality. The group also has lauded Scott Lively, a U.S. pastor who is infamous for his claim that gay men orchestrated the World War II Nazi Holocaust and who went to Uganda to speak against the LGBT community, lending support to the “kill the gays” bill there. Like the ADF, C-FAM does not mention its role in Belize on its website. It does, however, report favorably on the pro-Section 53 movement.

Repeated requests for comment from the ADF and C-FAM, submitted via E-mail and telephone over a period of months, produced no response from either.

Questioning Criminalization

A number of globally prominent Christians, including South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have unequivocally denounced criminalization of gay sex and all anti-gay discrimination. And in the United States, the issue of criminalizing gay sex and the harsh attacks on LGBT people have split the religious right, leaving groups that take extreme positions, like the ADF and C-FAM, more and more isolated.

Andrew Marin, an evangelical who has worked to build bridges to the LGBT community, predicted this schism in 2010. More recently, Warren Throckmorton, a professor of psychology at Christian Grove City College and another evangelical moderate, said that groups still backing criminalization are “becoming pariahs.” “Many evangelicals,” Throckmorton added, “are very much against criminalization.”

For some, the change in position has been a winding one. Rick Warren — one of America’s most prominent evangelicals, the author of the best-selling The Purpose Driven Life and the pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in California – is a case in point. Warren traveled repeatedly to Uganda for his AIDS ministry and was well aware of the proposed law to apply the death penalty in some cases involving gay sex. In early 2009, journalists revealed that Warren had, beginning in 2005, repeatedly invited Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan pastor and vigorous proponent of the death penalty for gay sex, to speak at Saddleback. In October 2009, Warren distanced himself from Ssempa, saying he had severed contact with the Ugandan pastor two years earlier. Finally, in a Christmas 2009 video, he called the proposed legislation “unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals.”

For some groups, change has come with contradictions. Focus on the Family has been the powerhouse of the U.S. religious right for many years and has frequently leveled harsh criticisms at the gay community. But since its president, Jim Daly, took over from James Dobson in 2009, the group has become more moderate. “We’ve created an animosity,” Daly was quoted saying in The New York Times in March. “We’ve said we hate the sin and love the sinner. But when you peel it back, sometimes we hated the sinner, too. And that’s not Gospel.” At the same time, however, while Focus on the Family is presumably against criminalization – or, in Daly’s words, “hating the sinner” – the group’s vice president of government and public policy, Tom Minnery, is a board member for the ADF, the group that has provided lawyers to help Belizean homophobes defend Section 53. Asked about that apparent contradiction, Focus officials initially promised the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) a statement on its position on criminalization. But in the end, the group declined to provide such a statement.

For some hard-line activists, change may not come at all. Scott Lively, the pastor who blames gay men for the Nazi war machine, lobbied for Uganda’s proposed law. Paul Cameron, whose Family Research Institute publishes anti-gay studies, has traveled to Russia and Moldova, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, to talk about the evils of LGBT people. And televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, described recently by the liberal Political Research Associates as “the key organization involved in ensuring African constitutions and laws criminalize homosexuality,” has opened affiliate offices in Brazil, France, Israel, Kenya, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Zimbabwe, where it has been involved since 2010 in helping to redraft that country’s constitution.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

One of the more remarkable aspects of the battle in Belize is the degree to which the anti-gay rhetoric now employed there has been lifted directly from anti-gay propaganda developed by the Christian Right in the long battle over gay rights in the United States. That was not always the case, Belizean LGBT-rights activists told the SPLC in a series of interviews last year. Belizean culture was certainly unfriendly to gay people, these activists say, but the now-frequently brandished propaganda, such as the oft-repeated idea by Section 53 supporters that gay men are recruiting children and that they are pedophiles, has been imported from the American anti-gay movement.

“This is all a foreign influence,” said the head of a local organization, who, like most of those interviewed, did not want to be named for fear of retribution. “These arguments are not from here. They start with pedophilia, and then, ‘They are coming after your kids.’ It’s just about instilling fear about gays.”

Many of the arguments were distilled in the amicus briefs filed by religious-right organizations in the Lawrence case. In its brief, for example, the American Center for Law and Justice argued there is “an extensively documented health risk of same-sex sodomy” and added that a ban on sodomy “permissibly furthers public morality.” The ADF’s brief said the “true objective” of the plaintiffs was to clear a path to further gay rights, such as adoption.

The Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, two of the largest Christian Right heavyweights, claimed that protecting marriage was the issue and that criminalization was a reasonable answer. “States may discourage the ‘evils’ … of sexual acts outside of marriage by means up to and including criminal prohibition,” their joint amicus brief said. The groups added that it was constitutional for Texas to “choose to protect marital intimacy by prohibiting same-sex ‘deviate’ acts.”

Many U.S. groups also have argued that gay sex is essentially the moral equivalent of incest, bestiality, and pedophilia. They say that gay people will live short lives and molest children at rates way out of proportion to their numbers (a particularly egregious, and false, allegation). They claim that school anti-bullying programs and the like are simply subterfuges for LGBT people to “recruit” new partners. And, basing their argument on the idea that being gay is a choice, they assert that because gay people cannot “reproduce” biologically, they must go out and convert straight people to homosexuality to maintain their numbers.

All of these arguments are alive and well in Belize.

The CIP, the alliance of Belizean churches defending Section 53 in court, has circulated a pamphlet contending that gay people are “after the kids,” and want to “lower the age of consent” for sexual activity. It also reiterated the longstanding U.S. argument that “homosexuals cannot reproduce; therefore, they must recruit.” In its court documents, the CIP describes homosexuality as “morally repugnant,” “socially undesirable,” and akin to “incest, prostitution and drug use.” Sodomy, the CIP argues, should be illegal for the same reasons that bestiality is.

The Rev. Canon Leroy Flowers, president of the local Council of Churches and head of the Anglican church in Belize, made similar arguments at a 2011 forum put on by Belize Action, according to Amandala, Belize’s main newspaper. “They’re after the kids,” he said. “The UK [United Kingdom] approved same-sex marriage years ago; now they’re having court battles to lower the age of consent.”

Similarly, an advertisement published this May in Belize’s largest newspaper warned that overturning Section 53 would result in moral decadence, same-sex marriage, and other ills. Echoing arguments commonly voiced by U.S. groups, the ad claimed that protecting gay rights would lead to the loss of freedom of speech and religion. The ad was paid for by the Militia of the Holy Spirit, an ominous-sounding group run by Belizean evangelical and anti-gay activist Louis Wade Jr. Despite the intervention of American groups like the ADF into the legal fracas, the ad depicted the court battle as a foreign attack on Belize: “Stand against this new cultural imperialism! Defend religious liberty! Defend Belize’s independence against foreign laws and foreign values. Defend our Constitution!”

Fear and Loathing in Belize

The fearmongering in Belize may be based on false propaganda, but the resulting hate and violence is very real – and terrifying – for LGBT people. For even the casual observer, it doesn’t take long to get a palpable sense of a community under siege.

A report released this March by the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, a human rights group focused on disadvantaged and “endangered populations” around the world, found that the LGBT community in Belize is routinely subjected to violence, even from law enforcement officials. The report cited, among other violent crimes, the bludgeoning death of an openly gay doctor and the murder of a politician’s gay brother in his own home. It also noted that border officials have regularly detained and harassed visitors they suspect of being gay.

The atmosphere has grown even more frightening since the filing of the challenge to Section 53. The country’s leading newspaper, Amandala, has played a particularly egregious role in stoking anger. In a column in May, Editor-in-Chief Russell Vellos wrote that “homosexuals prey on children and teenaged boys” and went on to describe the “evil” acts that “one man could do to another.” “Get up and help fight this evil in our midst,” Vellos wrote. The paper’s comment section is rife with calls for violence. “Let them burn!” one poster said of gay people. “Let the sharks eat their body parts,” said another.

As the latest hearing in the case opened this May, Amandala ran a front-page headline that played off UNIBAM’s name: “BAMers go to bat today.” The headline was an ugly joke. The phrase “batty boy” is often used in Caribbean countries as a slur for gay men, akin to the American use of “faggot.”

Several Internet posters have called for Orozco’s assassination, something that weighs heavily on the minds of many of Orozco’s friends and backers. After all, it happened in Uganda, where a similar battle over the criminalization of gay sex has been raging for several years. In 2010, a newspaper there published front-page photos and the home addresses of gay men, including LGBT activist David Kato, under the headline “Hang Them.” Twenty-three days later, Kato was murdered in his home.

There is virtually no sign of official concern for the fate of Orozco or other LGBT people in Belize. Prime Minister Dean Barrow has vowed to defend Section 53 and has criticized President Obama for opposing the criminalization of gay sex. In fact, there is not a single major political party or political figure who has come out in favor of overturning or even modifying the country’s draconian statute.

On the contrary, the defenders of Section 53 have been particularly caustic in their arguments. Louis Wade Jr., who runs the Militia of the Holy Spirit and is a close ally of Texas evangelical Scott Stirm, said in a video in May that the case was about opposing the “false god of carnality.” “Mark my words, it starts with one lawsuit… . If they get their way, the next set of lawsuits will be against the social security board … [and then] church and religious denominations across the nation when they refuse to marry homosexual couples. And then the final set of mass litigation will be against people who stand up and say that this … is wrong.”

For his part, Stirm was considerably blunter. The case brought by Orozco and UNIBAM, he said, is “an orchestrated plan of demonic darkness to dethrone God from our constitution and open massive gateways to demonic influences and destruction that will affect generation after generation to come.”

Through it all, the UN has been paying attention to the developments in Belize. This March, the Human Rights Committee of the UN’s Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights issued a report that called on Belize to review its constitution and legal code “to ensure that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are prohibited.” It also asked Belize to “ensure that cases of violence against LGBT persons are thoroughly investigated.”

Second Thoughts

There has been some minimal support shown for UNIBAM in Belize. In January 2012, local Jesuits and Sisters of Charity, both Catholic orders, boycotted a mass at Holy Redeemer Church that was held to criticize UNIBAM. Priests who spoke about this asked that their names not be used for fear of being punished by the national church hierarchy, even though the Vatican has taken a stand against the criminalization of gay sex. “My heart goes out to the LGBT community,” said one Jesuit priest who cited that stand. “If they are out, they can be killed. Caleb has certainly taken his life into his own hands. The anger around this issue is incredible.”

In the meantime, Caleb Orozco is hunkering down, awaiting a court ruling that is expected in August, even though there is much to suggest that he will lose the case. If so, he says, he and UNIBAM intend to appeal it to the next level and, ultimately, to the Caribbean Court of Justice. They cling to the hope that the Belize case will become a landmark LGBT rights decision.

“Everyone in the Caribbean is watching the case closely,” Orozco said at the time of the May hearing. “Our LGBT friends want to know how to succeed.”