Is Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill dead?

KAMPALA, Uganda — The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which calls for the death penalty in some cases, suffered a serious setback when a government committee advised that it be withdrawn from parliament.

The fate of the controversial legislation hangs in the balance with powerful forces both for and against the bill.

The legislation provoked an international uproar when it was proposed to parliament in October 2009. In addition to executions, it threatens long jail terms to anyone, including family members, who does not report homosexuals to the police.

The bill was proposed by member of parliament David Bahati, a member of President Yoweri Museveni's ruling party, the National Resistance Movement. The bill was backed by a number of influential evangelical ministers, some of whom are associated with and have allegedly received financing from American evangelical preachers.

At first it looked like the bill was assured passage and it was supported by demonstrations through Kampala's streets by large crowds. 

However international outrage, criticism from human rights groups and objections from major donors like Sweden, prompted the Kampala government to be wary of the bill. In mid-January Museveni issued a statement distancing himself from the bill. He appointed a cabinet committee to review the bill. The committee on May 7 recommended that the bill be withdrawn.

The committee's report found that the bill has "technical defects in form and content" and that many of the clauses are either unconstitutional or redundant of existing laws. Furthermore, the committee recommends deflecting negative attention away from the bill by changing its title or combining it with Uganda's existing law, the Sexual Offenses Act.

Only Clause 13 of the anti-gay bill — which addresses the promotion of homosexuality — “was worthy of consideration,” according to the report.

The cabinet committee suggests that the “useful provisions of the proposed law” should be incorporated into the existing Sexual Offenses Act. The committee agreed that promotion of homosexuality should be criminalized.

Some Ugandans remain completely against the anti-gay bill, like the Rev. Mark Kiyimba of the Uganda Unitarian Universalist Church, a self-proclaimed bisexual.

“Although the committee has made these recommendations, the bill is still a [Uganda Parliament] private member’s bill and can still be passed, in its original form," said Kiyimba. "Unless you can tell me that Bahati [the author of the bill] has changed his stance and is against the bill, it can still be passed.”

Life for gays in Kampala is difficult.

Others against the bill warned that the committee’s recommendations suggest that many aspects of the bill could still be passed “via stealth.”

Influential backing for the bill came from respected traditional leaders such as the Kabaka of Buganda and the world’s youngest king, King Oyo of the Tooro, who spoke in favor of the anti-gay legislation. The leaders urged the Ugandan Parliament to pass the bill in order to safeguard the country's values and traditions. Under their umbrella body, the Forum for Kings and Cultural Leaders in Uganda they expressed anger with the way Western countries have pressured the Ugandan government to throw out the anti-gay bill.

"We note with alarm how Western governments and their agencies are aggressively pushing for the legitimization of homosexuality which to us is not a human right, but a human vice," said the traditional leaders in a statement.

Adding to the mix, was Lou Engle, an American evangelical preacher and founder of The Call, a Christian youth movement. At first Engle released a statement distancing himself and his organization from the bill.

“We do not see the character of Christ reflected in some key aspects of the language of the current bill,” said Engle, “therefore The Call, though continuing to be held in Uganda, will not promote this bill.”

However, Engle gave a different message when he came to Kampala and spoke to a religious meeting on May 2 on the sports field of Uganda’s Makerere University.

Speaking to a crowd of about 500 people, Engle said he had not wanted to become embroiled in Uganda's uproar over gay rights.

“We had no idea, that we’d be thrust into a very intense controversy," said Engle. "As I sat down with the pastors, I realized that this was a controversy they never wanted.”

However, Engle went on to offer what many in the crowd interpreted as tacit support for the proposed anti-gay legislation. They punctuated Engle's statements by shouting "Hallelujah" and pumping their fists in the air.

“What I found out is that NGOs, the U.N. and UNICEF were coming in and promoting an agenda that the church of Uganda, did not want to be in this nation," said Engle. "So we’ve come here to join you, to pray that your government has wisdom to uphold righteousness in this land.”

Engle went on to compare Uganda’s controversy over gay rights with that in the U.S. He said Uganda was at the center of the worldwide battle over homosexuality.

“America is losing the religious freedoms ... we are trying to restrain an agenda that is going to hurt the nation and our families. Right now that homosexual agenda is sweeping into our education system and parents are losing their rights over the education of their children," said Engle. "Uganda is ground zero and God brought you to make a statement for righteousness.”

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill remains with the Ugandan Parliament's Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. Stephen Tashobya, who chairs the committee, has not said when he is likely to start discussion on it.

Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to correct a typographical error.