President Barack Obama took the setting of the National Prayer Breakfast – an annual Washington event that has drawn criticism from several quarters this year due to its sponsorship by The Fellowship, aka The Family – to strongly denounce the proposed “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” currently being considered in Uganda as ”odious.”
Obama told the assembled national and international figures today, Feb. 4, ”We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are — whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary [Clinton] mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.”
The mention was the strongest denunciation of the bill to come from the president in any public setting thus far, and was seen as a positive sign even from those who criticized the event itself.
Obama was joined at the event by First Lady Michelle Obama, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and several members of the president’s cabinet – including Secretary of State Clinton, who gave remarks as well.
Clinton, who has previously expressed her opposition to Uganda’s proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, specifically mentioned that she had spoken with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni about the bill.
She told the attendees, ”[W]e are standing up for gays and lesbians who deserve to be treated as full human beings. And we are also making it clear to countries and leaders that these are priorities of the United States. … I recently called President Museveni, whom I have known through the prayer breakfast, and expressed the strongest concerns about a law being considered in the Parliament of Uganda.”
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit organization devoted to ”promoting ethics and accountability in government and public life,” earlier called on government officials not to attend this year’s breakfast.
Melanie Sloan, the executive director of CREW, today said, ”I think it’s good that Mr. Obama took the occasion to denounce the Uganda [Anti-Homosexuality] bill, but I am disappointed that he attended at all.”
Sloan went on to explain that The Family’s sponsorship of the breakfast was problematic because ”their ideals are antithetical to [Obama’s] of transparency and tolerance.”
Jeff Sharlet, the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, talked with NPR’s Terry Gross the past fall about the connections between The Family and Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, saying that ”David Bahati, the man behind this legislation, is really deeply, deeply involved in The Family’s work in Uganda.”
Sharlet added ”that the ethics minister of Uganda, Museveni’s kind of right-hand man, a guy named Nsaba Buturo, is also helping to organize The Family’s National Prayer Breakfast [in Uganda].”
A coalition of organizations, spearheaded by Truth Wins Out, went a step further than CREW, organizing the American Prayer Hour as an alternative to the National Prayer Breakfast. The broad coalition included such groups as the Metropolitan Community Churches, National Black Justice Coalition, Human Rights Campaign and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Of the president’s statement, Wayne Besen, the executive director of Truth Wins Out, said it was ”incredibly important that he stood up and did this in the lion’s den.”
The comments from Obama already have prompted a rebuke from, Buturo, the official within the Ugandan government who Sharlet has identified as being associated with The Family. He told Agence France-Presse, ”Somebody should tell President Obama that the Parliament is doing its legislative duty in the interest of the people of Uganda.”
Buturo went on to call the efforts by the Obama administration in opposition to the bill ”unacceptable.”
The quick response from those in Uganda supporting the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, as well as from those in the United States who have criticized both the bill and the sponsors of the National Prayer Breakfast, were signs of the power of the president’s statement today.
Besen viewed his coalition’s efforts as a success, saying. “I think this is one of the first times that the religious left stood up to the religious right effectively … and said, ‘You don’t own religion.'”
CREW’s Sloan agreed, to a point, saying, ”I think that now Americans are beginning to understand that this [National Prayer Breakfast] is not sponsored by the government, and is sponsored by this shadowy organization called The Fellowship.”
Besen added, ”I think people have said, ‘Enough. We’re not going to allow these secretive theocratic groups to undermine democracy.”’
Also today, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a resolution condemning the proposed Ugandan bill, which calls for the execution of gays in some circumstances. Sexual relations between members of the same gender are already illegal in that country.
Berman was joined by more than three dozen members of Congress in introducing the resolution, which states that the Ugandan bill ”threatens the protection of fundamental human rights” and calls on the president and secretary of state to ”express unequivocal United States opposition” to the bill.