Globalizing The Culture Wars

Amie Newman

A new report, released by Political Research Associates, connects the dots between U.S. conservatives, African churches and a growing homophobia - with frightening results.

Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law currently on the table,
before Parliament, is an especially vicious piece of legislation that seeks to
impose life imprisonment and the death penalty upon those who are involved
in  “homosexual crimes.”. In this
era of growing rights, in the United States, for LGBT individuals, one may be
excused for thinking that laws like the one in Uganda are completely unrelated
to the Christian, religious right in the U.S., responsible in large part for the
onslaught of attacks against LGBT equal rights in this country. However,
according to “Globalizing the Culture
Wars”
, a new report produced by Political Research Associates and released
today, laws like the one in Uganda can be seen as the direct result of a campaign by United States neoconservative
religious groups to use Africa as another player in the culture wars they have
fomented on American soil for many years.

After a rigorous 16-month research and on-the-ground
investigative period, Zambian Anglican priest Kapya Kaoma, author of the PRA
report, found that U.S. conservatives are working in collusion with African
clerics (specifically, the report focuses on Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya.), in
three denominations (The Episcopal Church, The United Methodist Church and The
Presbyterian Church), to counter any progress mainline U.S. churches are
working towards, around LGBT issues, as well as to stir increased homophobia in Africa.

 

u.s. evangelicals and african clergy Pictures, Images and Photos

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What “LGBT issues” are we talking about?

According to the report, American conservatives, by
involving African clerics in these three countries, have managed to almost
completely halt recognition by these churches of the full equality of LGBT
individuals in the U.S. including the ordination of LGBT clergy. But, of course,
this crusade by U.S. conservatives is having even more dire consequences on
African soil, leading to a growing and increasingly violent homophobia
throughout Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya; violence that is typified in the Ugandan
bill before Parliament.

The campaign uses many tactics to engage African clerics to
help carry out their anti-gay agenda including presenting churches’ commitments
to human rights as “imperialistic” and reminiscent of colonialism, ie,
homosexuality is purely a Western-imposed phenomenon. One of the leaders in
this fight is the arch-conservative Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD).
The IRD, maybe unsurprisingly, opposed African liberation struggles, says the
report, and works ceaselessly against
civil rights
for LGBT individuals in the United States. They, along with
other U.S. based religious institutions, have provided financial incentives to
African clergy in return for strong support of their anti-gay agenda.

Of course, the IRD is by far the only player in these global
culture wars. From the report:

Conservative U.S. evangelicals play a strong role in
promoting homophobia in Africa by spreading their views and underwriting the
widespread conservative educational, social service, and financial
infrastructure. Right-wing groups have enticed African religious leaders to
reject funding from mainline denominations – which require documentation of how
the money is spent – and instead to accept funds form conservatives. This money
usually goes to individual bishops without accountability or oversight for how
it is used.

The truth is that Conservative leaders in this country, like
Pastor Rick Warren, have put tremendous effort into cultivating relationships
with African clerics who can help further their strong anti-gay agenda, while
simultaneously contributing to the vicious homophobia in African nations.

Pastor Warren has strong ties to Pastor Martin Ssempa, a conservative, religious
leader in Uganda who has been the recipient of PEPFAR funds (the U.S. AIDS plan
which distributes funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment) and is
extremely vocal and active about his homophobic beliefs. There are many
churches in Uganda, and other African nations, that are the direct recipients
of U.S. federal funding via PEPFAR, used to implement clear religious agendas
(vocally supported by Pastor Warren) such as requirements for spending a share of funding on
abstinence-until-marriage.  

According to the blog Box Car Bulletin, Pastor Ssempa
played a “prominent role” in the (false) accusations that a Ugandan megachurch
pastor named Robert Kayanja was gay. These accusations led to the kidnap and
torture of one of Kayanja’s personal aides.

In Jeff Sharlet’s book, “The
Family:
The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
(named for a clandestine organization of hard-core U.S.
fundamentalist leaders Sharlet uncovers and infiltrates), this highly secretive
organization calls Ugandan President Museveni, the man under whose watch the
insidious, horrific anti-gay Ugandan legislation has been offered,  “their man in Uganda” and “a good
friend” of The Family.

The blog Truth Wins Out reports
that, “In March [of 2009], American anti-gay activists traveled to Uganda for a
conference that pledged to “wipe out” homosexuality. Seven months later, a draconian bill has
been introduced that pledges to make good on this threat.”

Kaoma implores readers to take action knowing now the clear
connection between American religious leaders and the hateful on-the-ground
results in Africa:

We need to stand up against the U.S. Christian Right
peddling homophobia in Africa," said Kaoma, who in recent weeks asked U.S.
evangelist Rick Warren to denounce the bill and distance himself from its
supporters. "I heard church people in Uganda say they would go door to
door to root out LGBT people and now our brothers and sisters are being
further targeted by proposed legislation criminalizing them and threatening
them with death. The scapegoating must stop.

There is a web of entanglement between U.S. evangelicals,
fundamentalists, conservatives and African clergy that exists to maintain a
power structure and a severe homophobic agenda that serves these hard-core
religious groups. The report ends with a list of recommendations that includes
exposing and confronting U.S. religious conservatives (like Pastor Rick Warren)
who foment homophobia in Africa, exposing the financial ties between African
conservatives and various American institutions (like our very own federal
government), and maybe most importantly supporting African activists and
scholars to lead the struggle for LGBT rights and the study of sexuality in
Africa. 

The U.S. neo-conservative movement is working tirelessly to
push a religious agenda in Africa that serves their own purposes. As we
continue the fight for LGBT rights in our own country, the report reminds us
that it is critical we use our peripheral vision to see the bigger picture if
we are to truly win the war against religious evangelicalism’s homophobia, and
not just individual battles.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: The Fight Over Voter ID Laws Heats Up in the Courts

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Texas and North Carolina both have cases that could bring the constitutionality of Voter ID laws back before the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as this term.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the state’s voter ID law.

Meanwhile, according to Politifact, North Carolina attorney general and gubernatorial challenger Roy Cooper is actually saving taxpayers money by refusing to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s ruling on the state’s voter ID law, so Gov. Pat McCrory (R) should stop complaining about it.

And in other North Carolina news, Ian Millhiser writes that the state has hired high-powered conservative attorney Paul Clement to defend its indefensible voter ID law.

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Alex Thompson writes in Vice that the Zika virus is about to hit states with the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. So if you’re pregnant, stay away. No one has yet offered advice for those pregnant people who can’t leave Zika-prone areas.

Robin Marty writes on Care2 about Americans United for Life’s (AUL) latest Mad Lib-style model bill, the “National Abortion Data Reporting Law.” Attacking abortion rights: It’s what AUL does.

The Washington Post profiled Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Given this Congress, that will likely spur another round of hearings. (It did get a response from Richards herself.)

Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson writes in Bloomberg BNA that Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan thinks the Supreme Court’s clarification of the undue burden standard in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt will have ramifications for voting rights cases.

This must-read New York Times piece reminds us that we still have a long way to go in accommodating breastfeeding parents on the job.

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

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