For most of American history, LGBT people in this country have been stigmatized, imprisoned, violently attacked and severely discriminated against. And today, they are still the population most likely to be victimized by violent hate crimes, according to the FBI. But the modern gay rights movement, which began with the 1969 explosion of frustration known as the Stonewall riots, has made unexpectedly dramatic progress, especially in the last few years. Discriminatory policies in the military and elsewhere have fallen like dominoes. Polling has shown huge and positive shifts in public attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. Thirteen states have approved same-sex marriage. And in June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that legally married same-sex couples must receive the same federal benefits that heterosexual couples receive. At the same time, the Court overturned California’s Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriages in that state.
All of this has left the American hard-line religious right, which spent decades demonizing LGBT people and working to keep them in the closet, on the losing side of a battle that it now seems incapable of winning. As a result, these groups and individuals have increasingly shifted their attention to other nations, where anti-gay attitudes are much stronger and violence against the LGBT community far too common. In places like Uganda, where legislators since 2009 have been pushing a law that would impose the death penalty for the Orwellian offense of “aggravated homosexuality,” U.S. religious ideologues have given aid and comfort to the authors of barbaric legislation. More and more, they are doing the same in other countries around the globe.
Now, this international battle over the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws has moved to Belize, a Central American country where the government and an array of far-right religious forces are defending the draconian statute known as Section 53, which punishes same-sex “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with 10 years in prison. Though Belize is tiny, the battle has attracted numerous American groups — including the prominent Christian legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) — on the pro-criminalization side, providing advice to anti-gay bigots in Belize.
The ADF is a serious organization. Founded in 1994 by 30 prominent Christian leaders in response to what they saw as “growing attacks on religious freedom,” the organization has an annual budget of more than $30 million, a staff of 44 in-house lawyers and 2,200 allied lawyers. Its board is stacked with luminaries not only from the religious right, but also with partners from powerful law firms and captains of industry.
The ADF believes that religious freedom is under attack worldwide. It has in recent years built an international legal network and placed staffers overseas because it sees “a risk of winning a domestic battle while potentially — in time — losing the world.” Its website states that it is active in 31 foreign countries and describes a number of global initiatives. But it makes no mention of its criminalization work.
There is great hypocrisy here. Surely such work, providing legal or other counsel to keep a law on the books that lands gay people in jail for consensual sex, violates the oft-stated principle of the religious right that their theology teaches to hate the sin, but love the sinner. Perhaps that is why neither the ADF, nor any of the other American religious groups involved in Belize, say a word about their involvement in the Belize case on their websites. They also refuse to speak to the press about the case.
Their work is fanning the flames of anti-gay hatred that already exists in many of the countries where they are injecting themselves. As in Uganda, American groups have been propagandizing about the “recruitment” of young schoolchildren, the allegedly depraved and diseased lives of LGBT people, the pedophilia that is supposedly common among gay men, and the destruction of Christianity and the institution of marriage that they seem certain ending anti-LGBT laws will lead to. This vicious propaganda, born and bred by American ideologues, has found fertile soil across the globe.
The Belize case is important. Overturning Section 53 could lead to the demise of similar statutes in a dozen other Caribbean countries that belong to the Commonwealth of former British colonies. This would mark a major stop forward in securing full human rights for the LGBT community. It also could affect the even larger battle of the United Nations to influence scores of countries that signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which took effect in 1976, to outlaw statutes criminalizing gay sex and to prevent anti-LGBT discrimination.
In the United States, the issue of criminalization of gay sex abroad and similarly harsh attacks on LGBT people have split the religious right, leaving groups like the ADF that take extreme positions more and more isolated. In 2009, Rick Warren—one of America’s most prominent evangelicals, the author of the bestselling The Purpose Driven Life and the pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in California—denounced Uganda’s proposed death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” And in March, Focus on the Family spoke out against anti-gay proselytizing. “We’ve created an animosity,” the group’s president, Jim Daly, was quoted saying in The New York Times. “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.” Still, Focus’ vice president for government and public policy, Tom Minnery, sits on the ADF’s board, and the group has refused to comment on the situation in Belize.
Focus’ position on criminalization may be ambiguous, but one thing is absolutely clear: What American groups like the ADF are doing amounts to pouring fuel on an exceedingly volatile fire. They are aiding and abetting anti-LGBT forces in countries where anti-gay violence is endemic. And as The New York Times wrote in a 2010 editorial regarding Uganda, “You can’t preach hate and not accept responsibility for the way that hate is manifested.” In Belize, the situation is so bad that the lawyers for the LGBT activist who filed the Section 53 case worry that they only have one plaintiff, and he could be assassinated at any moment.
There could perhaps be no greater manifestation of hating the sinner, to borrow Jim Daly’s words, than bringing the full weight of the criminal law down on him or her. But that is exactly what the ADF and others involved in advocating for criminalization are trying to do. The leaders of these organizations should explain how their goal of protecting religious liberty and marriage requires countries to condemn members of the LGBT community to long prison terms. And Focus on the Family, like Rick Warren, should state clearly where it stands on the issue.