Massachusetts pastor Scott Lively has been accused by the group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) of inciting the persecution of homosexuals in Uganda.
During a hearing, which took place in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts on Jan. 7, Lively was accused of "violating the law of nations" and "crimes against humanity" as well as conspiracy and various "civil rights" crimes. In the filing, SMUG listed a number of violent acts committed against homosexuals in Uganda that they claim Lively's speeches against homosexuality have incited.
The suit seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, exemplary damages, attorneys' fees, and a "declaratory judgment that the Defendant's conduct is in violation of the law of nations" as well as "all such other and further relief that the court may deem just and proper."
SMUG is being represented in the United States by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). According to its website, CCR "is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change."
According to a CCR press release, the lawsuit alleges that "Lively's actions over the past decade, in collaboration with key Ugandan government officials and religious leaders, are responsible for depriving LGBTI people in Uganda of their fundamental human rights based solely on identity. This is the definition of persecution under international law and is deemed a crime against humanity."
SMUG brought its lawsuit in U.S. Court under the Alien Tort Statute, a provision that allows U.S. federal courts to hear lawsuits filed by non-U.S. citizens for torts (cause of harm) committed in violation of international law.
"We want him held accountable for the escalating homophobia and persecution in Uganda," SMUG representative Pepe Julian Onziema said, according to a CCR press release.
It is important to note that Uganda adopted its present constitution in 1995. Like the U.S. Constitution, the Ugandan governing document articulates the freedom of speech, expression, thought, conscience and belief.
In spite of the articulated freedoms that Lively operated under when preaching in Uganda, SMUG and its allies did not -- and do not -- like his message.
What was initiated by a Ugandan homosexual activist group and is being played out in a U.S. federal court has been predicted by some conservative observers -- including yours truly -- for quite some time. It seems evident that one of the goals of some homosexual activists is to silence any and all who would dare criticize or denounce their lifestyle.
Freedom is sometimes a very messy reality, especially when it comes to balancing of what seem to be competing rights. Though Uganda and the United States both have constitutions that clearly articulate that citizens have freedom of speech, even in America freedom of expression is not sacrosanct.
The Supreme Court of the United States has found there are some limitations on an individual's right to speak freely. The burden of proving that a person's speech falls into one of the limited categories is a very high legal standard, and it should be. Of the restrictions placed on the freedom of speech in the United States by the Supreme Court, it would seem SMUG is hoping the judge would find Lively's expressions fall into the category of inciting illegal activity.
In commenting on the Supreme Court's decision to restrict speech as it relates to illegal activity, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."
It will not be easy for SMUG to prove that Lively's words were the motive for actions against those who practice homosexuality in Uganda. In American jurisprudence, the restriction of speech for reasons of causing unlawful activity is extremely rare.
The clash of rights that many have long predicted is now taking place in a U.S. federal court. An American judge is being asked to rule concerning Ugandan free speech rights as they apply to a United States citizen's expression of his beliefs about the nature of homosexuality. You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried.
Forget all the legal verbiage contained in the SMUG lawsuit against Lively. The real issue at hand is this: In Uganda -- or in the United States -- does the freedom to express one's beliefs, no matter how repugnant those beliefs might be considered, trump a person's right to not be offended?
If the judge does decide to hear the case and if he was to rule against Lively, homosexual activists would have a victory they have long sought. While it would not have immediate application in the U.S., you can assume activists would look for reasons to file similar suits in America.
If we are going to live in a pluralistic society that affords the right of free speech to every citizen, there is another freedom that must be diligently exercised -- the freedom to ignore what offends you.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention's office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message, www.baptistmessage.com, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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