Shelburne Falls native accused in Ugandan gay rights case
SPRINGFIELD — A federal judge is set to decide whether a Shelburne Falls native helped engineer the persecution of homosexuals and their allies in Uganda or simply exercised his free speech rights overseas.
Springfield pastor Scott Lively, of the Abiding Truth Ministries, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against him by Sexual Minorities of Uganda.
Arguments for and against the dismissal were heard Monday before U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor.
According to the plaintiffs, Lively incited Ugandan authorities to carry out a curtailing of homosexual rights following speeches and lectures he gave in the African country in 2002 and 2009.
Sexual Minorities of Uganda is attempting to prosecute Lively for crimes against humanity, accusing him of engaging in persecution of homosexual individuals in Uganda. The group is using the Alien Tort Statute, which allows suits to be brought to American courts by non-U.S. citizens who claim to be victims of violations of international law committed outside the United States.
At the beginning of the approximately 90-minute hearing, Ponsor said the plaintiffs, represented by the Committee for Constitutional Rights, would have to show that Lively had gone above and beyond merely expressing his views on homosexuality.
Ponsor said he was “struggling to see what actionable behavior beyond expressive behavior,” Lively was guilty of, beyond talking, that should subject him to liability.
He noted that the First Amendment protects speech some would find despicable.
According to Lively’s website, the 54-year-old pastor was “born and raised” in Shelburne Falls and was the oldest of six children. In his biography, he goes on to say that his father suffered a severe form of mental illness, and that Lively was on his own by the age of 16. He portrays a difficult early adult life that led him to a devout Christian life.
Pam Spees, of the Committee for Constitutional Rights, said the plaintiffs allege that Lively incited anti-homosexual sentiment in Uganda that eventually led to a series of raids, arrests, outing of homosexuals in newspapers, and shutting down of media outlets, all designed to silence criticism of the policy and to criminalize advocacy on behalf of the gay community.
One of Lively’s attorneys, Horatio Mihet, of Florida-based Liberty Counsel, said the plaintiffs had failed to establish a link between Lively’s appearances and the eventual creation of a so-called “anti-homosexuality bill” in Uganda that opponents say strips human rights from the gay population.
That bill has not yet been entered into Ugandan law, both sides acknowledged, but Spees said, despite that, raids of conferences, arrests of advocates, outing of gay individuals in Ugandan tabloids, and media censorship still occurred.
Spees argued that not only did Lively incite the anti-homosexual sentiment in Uganda with his appearances, but he colluded with Ugandan officials to implement the crackdown on gay rights, despite the bill not being made a law.
Mihet countered by asserting that Lively never met with anyone accused of carrying out the raids and arrests, and was “half a world away” and years removed from his public speeches when those activities began.
“His crime is that he spoke,” Mihet said.
Mihet said the plaintiffs know they can’t demonstrate anything Lively said presented an imminent threat to incite violence or discriminatory behavior, so they are trying to establish a conspiracy under which to press their case.
The hearing was broadcast to two other empty courtrooms in the building to accommodate the scores of observers who couldn’t get a seat in the main courtroom, which held about 100 people.
Ponsor said he would decide whether the case should continue toward trial as soon as possible.
But he noted that the decision could be delayed by a case being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that could overturn the Alien Tort Statute, leaving the Ugandan group without a way to bring the case forward. He said he will likely wait until the Supreme Court’s position is clear before drafting his decision.
While there were supporters on both side of the case present at the hearing, those on the plaintiffs’ side were apparently more vocal, holding a brief press conference on the steps of the courthouse following the hearing with many supporters carrying signs with slogans like “Lively is deadly” and “Silence = death.”
Tempers briefly flared when one protester accused one of Lively’s supporters of being wrongheaded for following the pastor.
“We don’t follow him,” shouted back a Lively supporter. “We follow Jesus.”
Pepe Onziema, program director for Sexual Minorities of Uganda, said she was proud and excited to have the opportunity to pursue the case and be in court supporting it.
She said the purpose of the suit is to “hold someone accountable for the actions taking place back in my country.”
Onziema said the case went beyond human rights for Ugandans and concerned people worldwide.
“Persecution of one person is persecution of all,” she said.
After the hearing, Spees said it was an honor and a privilege to work on the case.
“If law and justice are going to be on speaking terms, this is the case where it’s going to happen,” she said.