Heads of state and other dignitaries will gather this week to attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast. A highly secretive Christian fundamentalist organization called The Family hosts the event each year. The Family has ties to major players in our government and also boasts such members as the embattled and adulterous Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and the governor from South Carolina, Mark Sanford. Who also admitted to having a mistress last year.
The event has happened for several years and usually without much fanfare, but this year attendees and the rest of the country can expect much more hoopla over the event. That's because a coalition of civil rights organizations are calling on the President and other invited guests to skip the annual event to protest the involvement of members of The Family who had a direct hand in crafting Uganda's horrendous and deeply violent Anti-Homosexual bill. Up until recently this bill included execution as punishment for violation of the law. It was only amended after much arm-twisting by the international community. The new legislation does nothing, however, to address the other draconian elements that look to be codified.
If you don't know much about The Family, it's probably because they don't have a web site nor any discernible appearance of a legitimate non-profit organization. Instead, the group is shrouded in secrecy and only really surfaces every year to host this annual event. The Family has been the subject of much scrutiny in the last year not only for its involvement with Uganda, but also for its shady dealings and influence with some of the highest office holders in America. Check out the video below of Rachel Maddow interviewing Jeff Sharlet, who has recently published a new book about The Family.
At a press conference in Washington, organizers of an alternative to the National Prayer Breakfast, dubbed the American Prayer Hour, called on the Congress, the President and the world-at-large to repudiate the homophobic legislation and The Family, whose only reason for existing is to organize the prayer breakfast.
"It is irresponsible for any public official to associate themselves with a group that has such a checkered past," said author Frank Schaeffer. "I don't think that anyone with a conscience should participate in the breakfast, especially if there is a good alternative." Schaeffer, whose father was instrumental in the up-rise of the modern Christian right wing movement, has been outspoken about The Family's involvement in Uganda and its ties to leaders in government.
Schaeffer went on to compare to terrorists organizations calling The Family, America's version of the Taliban.
"Our national leaders have got to stop and think a minute about working with a group similar to the Taliban and who, if they had their way, would do here in the U.S. exactly what the Ugandan's are trying to do," Schaeffer said.
According to Schaeffer, the National Prayer Breakfast has become The Family's annual meeting saying that as soon as it is over, the wheeling and dealing for more influence begins.
"They deal in the currency of oppression. They see U.S. divided into 'We' and 'They'," he said. "Enough of the pussyfooting around on this. It is time to see who is interested in religion and who is just interested in power."
The press conference marked the first in a series of events this week designed to spotlight and ramp up the pressure against The Family and its involvement with Uganda's efforts to eliminate its LGBT population.
The most compelling moment came when a soft-spoken gentleman, Moses, took to the podium. Moses is a gay Ugandan man who is seeking asylum in the United States in order to escape persecution at home for being gay. He is also in serious fear for his life so he delivered his remarks with a paper bag draped over his face to hide his identity.
He talked at length about his experience, which has included severe beatings, rape at the hands of the police and public outing. He praised the efforts of the organizers and called on all Americans to do all they could to bring sunshine to the human rights atrocities happening in his home country.
"In Uganda, one would rather die than come out of the closet," he said. "When you're gay in Uganda, you're denied things like housing because of the threat you pose to spreading deviance."
The discrimination has even infiltrated Uganda's health care system as evidenced by Moses' harrowing story of being raped by a local police officer. He went home to treat himself, knowing he would be denied assistance at hospital in favor of being reported.
When speaking about the Ugandan legislature's decision to remove the execution provision of the bill, Moses called the move insincere. The bill still retains a provision that calls for a minimum sentence of 20 years for violation of the law.
"The average Ugandan dies at 51, he said, so if one is outed in their 20s or 30s they would in effect be handed a death sentence," he said.
Other events this week include a protest outside The Family's C Street House tomorrow evening. The protest is being organized by Full Equality Now DC. Protesters will gather on Capitol Hill at 5:30 and hold a rally outside the residence which houses members of Congress including Sen. John Ensign, who admitted last year that he had had an affair with the spouse of one of his staffers. That staffer claims that the C Street House was the site where many of Ensign's adulterous acts took place.
Everything will culminate in the American Prayer Hour on Thursday morning. It will be running counter to the prayer breakfast and organizers are urging all who can to attend any of the several meetings happening all over the country. Prayer hours will be taking place in Dallas (where the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force is having their annual Creating Change conference), Chicago, L.A. and even Anchorage, Alaska! For a complete list, visit AmericanPrayerHour.org.
According to the American Prayer Hour web site, organizers hope to "share our inclusive vision and worldview by celebrating our core values of diversity, justice, respect for all people and religious pluralism." It is also very much about highlighting the anti-gay activists who are behind the National Prayer Breakfast and the role they have played in promoting homophobia in other countries, specifically Uganda.
The White House has already confirmed the president's attendance at the breakfast on Thursday, despite repeated calls to skip the event. Bishop Gene Robinson said, however, that Mr. Obama's attendance on Thursday is key.
"To get someone not to attend at this point is inappropriate. One of the things we like about Obama is his tendency to go where angels fear to tread," said Robinson. "I'd rather he do go as it's an opportunity for him to speak out.
In anticipation of the president's attendance on Thursday, Harry Knox, who is HRC's director of Religion and Faith and also a member of Mr. Obama's Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnership Advisory Council, said every effort has been made to ensure the president uses the opportunity to repudiate the Ugandan effort and those of anyone associated with them. The administration's recent actions have also been encouraging.
"At the direction of the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear to Uganda that if this bill passes the country will have serious diplomatic issues with the United States," Knox said.
No word exactly on what those issues could be, but most on the panel today agreed that Uganda's substantial foreign aid could be at risk.