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Judge weighing dismissal of Uganda gay rights suit

Updated at: 01/07/2013 7:37 PM
By BRIDGET MURPHY

(AP) SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - For Pepe Onziema, a transgender gay rights activist from Uganda, Monday’s federal court hearing in Springfield was a chance to face the man he later called the devil.

For Scott Lively, a Massachusetts evangelical accused of persecuting gays in Uganda, the hearing was something he said he expected as a Christian.

"The Bible predicts that Christians would sit in seats like this and have to face these kinds of things," Lively said later. "I’m not surprised and I’m ready to do whatever the Lord has for me to do."

Following court arguments Monday, it is now up to U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor to decide whether to grant Lively’s motion to dismiss a civil action that Sexual Minorities Uganda filed against him last year. The Uganda-based group for which Onziema serves as program director alleges that Lively waged a long campaign of persecution of gays in the East African country.

Lively’s lawyer, Horatio Mihet, called the case an attack on the U.S. Constitution and his client’s First Amendment right to free speech. Plaintiff’s attorney Pam Spees, from the Center for Constitutional Rights, said Lively conspired with others in Uganda to persecute gays.

With every courtroom seat filled, court officials broadcast the proceeding to two overflow rooms so spectators could watch the arguments live.

The judge said he would consider whether Lively’s speech crossed the boundary from First Amendment-protected speech into activity intended to harm people, and that he was looking for more concrete examples of misbehavior on Lively’s part to justify the continuation of the lawsuit.

"As I look at the complaint, I’m frankly struggling to see what the actionable behavior is here," Ponsor said of the plaintiff’s filing.

Sexual Minorities Uganda sued under the Alien Tort Statute, filing the U.S. court action as non-citizens while alleging a violation of international law. Part of Lively’s motion to dismiss called the court’s jurisdiction under that statute into question. Ponsor said he wouldn’t address that part of the claim since the U.S. Supreme Court already is considering the statute.

The defense argued there’s no link between Lively and his alleged co-conspirators, and his criticism of homosexuality wasn’t specific enough to constitute as conduct that persecuted gays.

The plaintiff argued that Lively met with Ugandan government leaders and headlined a 2009 conference from which an anti-gay bill emerged.

The proceeding comes as Uganda’s Parliament could consider a bill in February that would punish those who promote gay culture, among other aims.

While the bill would include jail for some offenses, the lawmaker who authored the original bill told The Associated Press in November that a new version wouldn’t punish some homosexual acts with death.

Parliamentarian David Bahati said the new bill concentrates on protecting children from gay pornography, banning gay marriage and counseling gays.

When introducing the original bill in 2009, Bahati said gays threatened family values and a colonial-era law against sodomy wasn’t strong enough.

The first proposal called for the death penalty in cases where HIV-infected gays had sex, where gays had sex with minors or the disabled, and where gays were discovered having sex for the second time.

World leaders including President Barack Obama have condemned the legislation.

Lively told the AP after the lawsuit’s filing in March 2012 that he never advocated violence against gays and advised therapy for them, not punishment.

He said in an earlier AP interview that he didn’t oppose the criminalization of gays but that imprisonment and the death penalty are too harsh. He was among U.S. evangelicals who visited Uganda in 2009, after which debate began about the bill.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)