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Uganda gay rights fight plays out in Springfield court

Pastor Scott Lively (center) has criticized the accusations in the lawsuit as scurrilous and misleading.
Pastor Scott Lively (center) has criticized the accusations in the lawsuit as scurrilous and misleading.John Suchocki/The Republican/MassLive.com/File 2013/The Republican/MassLive.com

Gay rights activists in the East African nation of Uganda say they've been persecuted for years, subject to arrest simply for meeting, to physical violence for being gay.

In an unlikely twist, their plight is now front-and-center in a federal court case in Springfield, where a Ugandan gay-rights organization is accusing Springfield Christian pastor and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Scott Lively of a crime against humanity. The group alleges he participated in what it says is a conspiracy to deprive gay people in Uganda of their fundamental human rights.

In the lawsuit, the group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, tries to connect Lively's visits to the African country, his work with activists and officials, and his speeches there about the "gay movement" being "an evil institution" to the persecution, which includes subsequent Ugandan legislation that initially would have made consensual gay sex acts punishable by death. It says he went to Uganda to help increase the persecution.

Lively, known for his international anti-gay advocacy, vociferously disputed the allegations as fabrications and misrepresentations. He calls the Ugandan legislation first introduced in 2009 "draconian" and frames the lawsuit as a scurrilous attack on him for speech protected by the First Amendment.

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"I'm opposed to the legitimization of homosexuality in society, but that's within my constitutional rights as an American," he said. "We all have the ability to advocate for the policy positions that we support, and I've always done that with respect, never with a call to hatred or violence against anyone."

But a judge declined Lively's request to dismiss the suit, first filed in 2012, without further proceedings. And both sides have been interviewing potential witnesses — in sworn depositions — including some from Uganda. A summary judgment decision from a federal judge is expected next year; if he allows the case to move forward, a trial could follow.

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The lawsuit and lawyers for Sexual Minorities Uganda emphasize that the group is challenging Lively's conduct rather than his speech. They allege he conspired with local activists to deprive gay people in Uganda of their fundamental rights, such as assembling peaceably, because of their identity.

According to the lawsuit, Lively's alleged rhetoric characterizing gay people as, among other things, "brutal and savage" and having a propensity toward sexual violence against children, are not the underlying basis of the complaint but rather evidence of the malicious intent of his conspiracy.

The plaintiffs allege that Lively's speech and alleged conspiracy in several visits to Uganda during the 2000s deliberately invited and induced repression and violence against the gay community there, such as raids on conferences and threatening newspaper articles about the supposed dangers of gay people.

"What's critical is that beyond mere demonization of the LGBTI community, Lively took affirmative steps to plan and advise his co-conspiratorial elites in Uganda to take concrete action to deprive this community of their basic rights," said Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit that is representing Sexual Minorities Uganda free of charge. (The acronym Azmy used stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex.)

Lively said the public can watch a video of him at a Ugandan seminar to see the full context of his remarks and added he never alleged that gay people are "brutal and savage" or have a propensity toward sexual violence against children.

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"There are homosexuals who molest children. That's just a fact," he told the Globe. "But I never said that all homosexuals do that."

Attempts to reach the plaintiffs by e-mail and telephone in Uganda were not successful.

They are seeking a ruling that Lively is at least in part responsible for persecution in Uganda, an order stopping him from the alleged persecution, and compensatory and punitive damages.

Under what's known as the Alien Tort Statute, foreigners alleging infringement of their rights in violation of the law of nations or a US treaty can bring a lawsuit against an American in US federal court in certain circumstances. In court documents, the plaintiffs allege Lively has committed persecution as defined by the International Criminal Court treaty and other international law.

But in interviews and in filings, Lively and his lawyers note that the United States is not party to that international treaty and say that the lawsuit is a "direct assault" on the US Constitution and its protections of speech.

Further, they say the pending case does not meet the legal standard to which it aspires.

Horatio G. Mihet, one of Lively's lawyers from the nonprofit Liberty Counsel, which is representing the pastor free of charge, called the lawsuit a "work of fiction" aimed not at garnering a verdict but rather at raising the profile of the Ugandan group and, at the same time, chilling the free speech rights of those who advocate for family values around the world.

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"The process is the punishment," Mihet said.

Lively, 58, was born in Shelburne Falls, Mass., and, as he tells it, became an alcoholic at age 12 and struggled with addiction for years.

"I was healed and delivered of prayer in 1986," he said, and subsequently had his "eyes opened" on abortion and "the homosexual agenda."

Lively, who moved from the West Coast back to Massachusetts in 2008, has traveled to dozens of countries to speak about what he calls "biblical values" and what advocacy groups characterize as hate speech.

The Human Rights Campaign, an influential gay rights group, speaking broadly, calls Lively among the "most notorious extremists."

"Scott Lively's long record of exporting vicious anti-LGBT bigotry is horrifying. His words and actions harm LGBT people from the United States to Uganda and beyond," Kerry Brodie, a spokeswoman for the campaign, said in a statement.

Among other books, Lively is the author of "The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party," a revisionist history that alleges the Nazi party was controlled by gay men who hid their sexual orientation from the public.

In a 20-minute telephone interview from California, where he is spending the winter with his granddaughter, he spoke in even tones.

Given his views, why did move back from the West Coast to Massachusetts, at the forefront of gay rights?

He said he wanted to stand for "biblical values" in his home state. He said that was the main reason for his longshot independent run for governor last year, during which he qualified for the ballot but garnered less than 1 percent of the vote.

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The run was an effort to not let "the Marxists" have Massachusetts without a fight.

Children marched against homosexuality in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala.
Children marched against homosexuality in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala.Stephen Wandera/Associated Press/File 2010/Associated Press

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.