Las Vegas paper covers Canyon Ridge controversy

In today’s edition, Las Vegas City Life’s Jason Whited covered the controversy surrounding Canyon Ridge Christian Church and their support for Martin Ssempa.

A local megachurch that offers free HIV/AIDS tests also supports Africa’s most notorious anti-gay evangelical pastor, which has gay activists calling out the seeming hypocrisy.

Canyon Ridge Christian Church, one of the largest houses of worship in Southern Nevada, drew the ire of activists here and across the country last week when it hosted free testing — conducted by Southern Nevada Health District staffers — June 27 as part of National HIV Testing Day.

Activists said they’re not against people getting tested for the virus that causes AIDS. They just don’t think the church should be considered a pillar of tolerance when it supports Martin Ssempa, the controversial Ugandan pastor whose anti-gay rants and support of legislation that would imprison homosexuals in his country have made headlines worldwide.

“You don’t want to stop anyone from getting tested, but you also don’t want this guy to benefit from the support this church gives him,” said Derek Washington, chair of the Stonewall Democrats of Southern Nevada, perhaps the most active gay rights group in the valley. “The church is saying, ‘Give us your tithes, and we’ll do good things with it ’cause we’ll send it overseas.’ But I don’t think most people at that church know about this, and that’s the problem. Members of the church should know who they’re supporting.”

As I have noted here, the church leaders are preferring to believe the best about Ssempa.

But Ssempa has widespread support among American evangelicals, including those who run Canyon Ridge. Ssempa is listed as a ministry partner of the church.

Church leaders said they support Ssempa financially, but they refused to say how much they give to his ministry. Mitch Harrison, an executive pastor at Canyon Ridge, said activists have it all wrong. He said Ssempa actually opposes the more disturbing aspects of the Ugandan legislation that demands the death penalty for homosexuals who molest children or rape the handicapped.

“This year, we’ve had discussions with Martin about [the legislation], and I can tell you what’s being reported about him in the American media is wrong,” Harrison said. “He’s repeatedly said he wants the death penalty [provision] removed and that he’s not in favor of death for [homosexuals].”

I wrote Ssempa to ask him when he changed his mind about the death penalty; he has not replied. When the bill was first tabled in October, 2009, Ssempa told me

I am in total support of the bill and would be most grateful if it did pass.

For months, Ssempa claimed that the AHB only sought to criminalize child abuse and rape and that the bill was needed to protect the “boy child.” Anyone reading the bill knew that was not accurate and Ssempa continued to portray the bill in that fashion. He was expressing this same view at the demonstration he organized in Jinja, Uganda on February 15, 2010. On Ssempa’s Facebook page, you see him speak about pedophiles in the context of a demonstration against homosexuality and then listen to one person dismiss concern over the death penalty and another defend it with Leviticus. The video is also embedded below:

Unfortunately, the City Life article confuses matters by referring to official documents as evidence that Ssempa is being misrepresented.

Despite the hysteria among some left-leaning talking heads, official documents back up Harrison’s claim. In letters to his supporters and in official policy statements, Ssempa — who heads up a Ugandan AIDS eradication effort funded by both the U.S. government and popular evangelicals such as Rick Warren — walked back some of his earlier support for the Ugandan bill.

“As ministers, we believe it is our role to preach the message of salvation and grace to all, including homosexuals,” wrote Ssempa in a March letter to fellow evangelicals. “We actually have in our church individuals who have come out of the homosexual lifestyle …”

Ssempa indeed has of late backed away from the death penalty in his published statements but he has not backed away from imprisonment. Watch the February Jinja video and ask yourself what message is being portrayed.

The death penalty is the attention getter in the bill but what about life in prison for homosexual touching or “intent” to commit a homosexual act? Harrison says they don’t believe in that:

Harrison said no one at Canyon Ridge supports either death or imprisonment for homosexuals. He said his church’s multi-year partnership with health district officials to provide free HIV/AIDS testing is indicative of “the heart” his church has for the community.

“We feel a charge from Jesus to love all people and to be active and serve the needs of our community. That’s why we’ve agreed to be a site for this annual HIV/AIDS testing,” Harrison said.

Forget the death penalty for a minute, the Ugandan bill still calls for life in prison for non-HIV positive gays. I cannot find any place where Ssempa or the supporters of the bill have backed away from that.

I suspect the documents that the reporter referred to are a letter from Ssempa to supporting churches and the recommendations from the Uganda Joint Christian Council to the Parliament about the bill. You can read for yourself what you think of those changes and whether those changes make the partnership appropriate. The Joint Christian Council recommends that the death penalty be reduced to 20 years in a rehabilitation facility and that the focus be on victimization of children and the handicapped. However, there is nothing in these recommendations about non-aggravated homosexuality. The reductions for related offences are minor (e.g., 7 years to 5 years) but I see nothing in here which reduces the life sentence for homosexual conduct. Section 2 is skipped over:

2. The offence of homosexuality.

(1) A person commits the offence of homosexuality if-

(a) he penetrates the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any other sexual contraption;

(b) he or she uses any object or sexual contraption to penetrate or

stimulate sexual organ of a person of the same sex;

(c) he or she touches another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality;

(2) A person who commits an offence under this section shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for life.

I take Rev. Harrison at his word that he does not believe in criminalization, however, nothing in these recommendations indicates that Martin Ssempa has changed his belief in it.