February 4th, 2011
11:54 AM ET
By Padmananda Rama, CNN
Washington (CNN) – As President Barack Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, demonstrators outside reignited a simmering debate over the role the breakfast's organizers in an attempt to pass anti-gay legislation in Uganda.
Gay rights activists urged President Obama not to attend this year’s National Prayer Breakfast accusing the Fellowship Foundation - which hosts the annual event - of promoting anti-gay legislation in Uganda.
“We would love for the President to come out and join us at the “Breakfast without Bigotry,” said Michael Dixon, an organizer with GetEqualDC who organized Thursday's prayer breakfast demonstrations.
As thousands attended the invitation-only breakfast inside the Washington Hilton, outside 30 or so demonstrators gave their own eulogy and prayers for slain Ugandan rights activist David Kato, who was killed last month.
In an interview last year, Kato told CNN he feared for his life after a local Ugandan tabloid listed him as one of the country’s “top homosexuals.” Kato was also a strong advocate for gay rights in a country where homosexual acts are considered crimes.
Prior to his murder, he fought against proposed legislation that would potentially increase the maximum punishment from life in prison to death.
Demonstrators in Washington said that the Fellowship Foundation, the Christian organizers behind the National Prayer Breakfast, have supported that legislation. David Bahati, the Ugandan parliamentary member who introduced the anti-gay bill, is associated with the Christian group.
The Fellowship Foundation is also known as the Family, after a book by that name that was published about the group several years ago.
“The values the Family is actually espousing could not be further from what Jesus would actually support,” Dixon told CNN. “We feel that persecuting people because of the way that they were born, trying to have them imprisoned for life, trying to execute them, is not Christian and it’s not a family value in any sense of the word.”
J. Robert Hunter, who has worked with Fellowship prayer groups in Uganda and is authorized by the organization to speak on Ugandan issues, tells CNN the Fellowship has repeatedly condemned the proposed law.
“The bill flies in the face of Christian teachings,” said Hunter. “It’s very draconian. I know of no one here who supports it. Everybody thinks it’s awful.”
Hunter, who says he’s been actively involved with the Fellowship for more than 30 years, describes it as “loosely affiliated prayer groups.” In the early 1980s, Hunter began making regular trips to Uganda, most recently to work with two hospitals there.
He says he met with Bahati in 2009 or 2010 and denounced the bill. When he visits this year, he has no plans to see him.
“We have opposed the bill consistently ever since it’s come out,” said Hunter. “The very first people to oppose the bill were people in Uganda, who were in the Fellowship group, who when Bahati explained the bill to them said it was wrong. So we’re also the first people to oppose it.”
Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the Episcopal church's first openly gay bishop, is critical of the Fellowshiop.
“What I and others are calling for is for The Family organization to do far more than it’s done recently. There’s been a… mediocre and fairly listless attempt to distance itself from this law,” he said. "If you start a wildfire and it gets out of control and burns a bunch of homes, you know, it does no good to say, ‘Oh gosh, I never really meant to have it end up this way.”
Mr. Hunter, who attended this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, says Mr. Bahati was not invited.
Uganda’s Parliament is scheduled to vote on the anti-gay bill later this year.
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