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Obama condemns Uganda's anti-gay bill

WASHINGTON _ President Obama condemned Uganda’s controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill today during a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.

"We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are _ whether it's here in the United States or … more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda," Obama told a bipartisan gathering of lawmakers and religious leaders at the breakfast in Washington, D.C.

First lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero also attended.

The breakfast has long been hosted by a fundamentalist Christian group known as The Family. This secretive group has been linked to the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda, including its sponsor, David Bahati.

This year’s breakfast drew widespread protests from gay-rights advocates, progressives and government watchdogs groups, all expressing concern about The Family’s connection to Bahati and Uganda’s dictator. Bahati was disinvited from attending the breakfast after the protests mounted.

The controversy inspired gay-rights supporters and moderate religious leaders to form an alternative event, the American Prayer Hour, which was held at venues across the U.S. today. One of that group’s organizers is The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.

“I spent time in Uganda to help set up HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs many years ago. Ugandans are a generous and hospitable people. But because of an unholy alliance between conservative religious groups in this country and anti-gay forces overseas Ugandans are turning on their own Ugandan sons and daughters who happen to be gay,” Robinson said.

“This proposed law is a threat to LGBT people in Uganda and everywhere. Around 35 percent of Ugandans are Anglican and 45 percent are Catholic. Although many faith leaders have stood by silently, today we speak out on behalf of the marginalized. Faith leaders of all traditions should speak out for the most vulnerable in Uganda before it’s too late.”

Obama’s condemnation of the Uganda bill was praised by Truth Wins Out, a nonprofit organization that defends the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community against anti-gay misinformation campaigns.

"We applaud President Obama for having the courage to confront those responsible for the heinous anti-gay bill in Uganda," said Wayne Besen, the organization’s executive director. "We hope that the president's laudable stand makes it clear to Family members in the United States and Uganda that the world is watching. Religion can no longer be used to justify bigotry, intolerance and persecution anywhere on the face of the Earth."

Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, and punishable by life imprisonment in some instances.

The proposed legislation would bolster the criminalization of homosexuality by introducing the death penalty for people are labeled serial offenders, are suspected of "aggravated homosexuality" and are HIV-positive, or who engage in sexual acts with those younger than 18.

The bill also targets people who do not report a homosexual within 24 hours of knowledge. Parents, teachers, landlords, media members, health care workers and religious leaders who counsel or work with HIV/AIDS infected persons would also be at risk of imprisonment.

"The easy and safe course would have been for President Obama to remain silent," Besen said. "Instead, he walked into The Family's house and held them accountable for their actions in Uganda. It was a huge victory for human rights and the president's actions were courageous and honorable."

Spain’s prime minister, who was in D.C. for meetings with high-level U.S. officials, also weighed in on the controversy. During his speech, Zapatero warned against intolerance.

"I want to defend the right of every person to his moral autonomy, the freedom of all to live with his beloved," he said.

Uganda has been criticized by the United States, the European Union and many other nations over the proposed legislation.

Obama's comments at the breakfast came a day after legislation was proposed in the House that condemned the controversial Ugandan bill.

The House measure, which is largely symbolic, asserts that "all people possess an intrinsic human dignity, regardless of sexual orientation, and share fundamental human rights," and warned that the Ugandan bill, if enacted, "would set a troubling precedent."