August 11, 2016 at 12:20 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
US official declines to criticize anti-LGBT religious figures
David Saperstein, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein speaks at the State Department on Aug. 10, 2016. (Photo courtesy of State Department)

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein on Wednesday declined to specifically criticize American religious figures who support anti-LGBT efforts abroad.

Saperstein told reporters in response to a question from the Washington Blade after the State Department released its annual religious freedom report that he was “here to speak on behalf of the United States government that has been quite clear on the issue of protecting the LGBTI community across the globe.”

“People ought not to be discriminated against simply because of immutable characteristics or in terms of religious freedom,” he told the Blade.

Saperstein added that the U.S. has “robustly protected that right,” which includes “the right of people in the LGBTI community to organize religiously and participate in their own religious life as well.”

“We equally defend the right of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of religion of those groups who differ with the position of the United States on such issue to exercise those rights against, so long as they do so peacefully,” he told the Blade.

The State Department released the report hours before the Belize Supreme Court ruled the country’s colonial-era sodomy law is unconstitutional.

The Southern Poverty Law Center noted in a 2013 report that the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and Extreme Prophetic Ministries supported Belize Action, a group that opposes efforts to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations in Belize. Liberty Counsel Chair Mat Staver and Dr. Judith Reisman, who publicly challenges Alfred Kinsey’s research on sexuality, are among the anti-LGBT advocates from the U.S. who have traveled to Jamaica in recent years and attended events organized by groups that oppose efforts to repeal the island’s colonial-era sodomy law.

The Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit against Scott Lively, an American evangelical pastor, in 2012 on behalf of a Ugandan advocacy group for allegedly exploiting homophobic attitudes in the East African country before MP David Bahati introduced the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009. Activists have also criticized National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown for traveling to Russia, which enacted a law banning the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors in 2013.

“We believe in the free marketplace of ideas,” Saperstein said in response to the Blade’s question. “The vision that we hold about fundamental civil rights for all community, including the LGBTI community, will prevail, but we protect the right of religious groups to express views that are counter views both within the United States and outside the United States.”

Report highlights Brunei, Islamic State

The report notes Brunei began to implement its new legal code, which is based on sharia law, in 2014.

The first phase of the legal code expands penalties for cross-dressing and other “minor religious offenses.” Another provision that has yet to take effect seeks to punish those convicted of homosexuality by stoning them to death.

The report also highlights the so-called Islamic State.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced in March that the Sunni militant group has committed genocide against Christians, Shiite Muslims and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. The so-called Islamic State has also publicly executed dozens of men in the two countries who were accused of sodomy.

Assistant Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday noted the ongoing campaign against the Sunni militant group in Iraq as he discussed the report.

“As the fight for the liberation of Mosul in Ninevah province draws near, we must work together to ensure a future in which all Iraqis — be they Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Christian or other — feel represented and protected by the nation that they call home,” he said.

Officials downplay Trump comments, rhetoric

The State Department released the report nearly two months after a gunman killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

The gunman, who was born in New York to Afghan parents, reportedly pledged his allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. His father, who attended a Hillary Clinton rally earlier this week in Florida, told reporters after the massacre that his son had recently become “very angry” when he saw two men kissing in Miami.

Blinken noted the Pulse nightclub massacre and recent terrorist attacks in Bangladesh, Iraq, France and Turkey for which the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility or inspired.

“One of the best ways to deny these murderers their victory is by ensuring that those they have sought to destroy not only survive, but thrive,” said Blinken.

Donald Trump reiterated his calls to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S. in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre. The Republican presidential nominee on Wednesday said during a rally in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that President Obama “is the founder” of the so-called Islamic State.

Saperstein on Wednesday said in response to a question about Trump’s proposal and rhetoric that the Obama administration “has spoken clearly about the concerns . . . of singling out any group for different treatment because of their religious identity.” He also reaffirmed that freedom of religion is one of the principles upon which the U.S. was founded.

“No matter who is elected, the institutions of the United States, constitutional restraints, will ensure that we continue along the line we have for the last 200 years,” said Saperstein.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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