A Nevada public health organization has cut ties with the Las Vegas church that counts controversial Ugandan anti-gay pastor Martin Ssempa as a mission partner.
As Salon reported on July 2, the Canyon Ridge Community Church has an ongoing relationship with Ssempa, who has become the public face of Uganda's "kill the gays bill." At the same time, the church has been working with the Southern Nevada Health District in Las Vegas to provide a location for HIV testing and AIDS awareness activities. But late Friday, in a letter to Canyon Ridge pastor Kevin Odor, the agency's chief health officer, Lawrence Sands, severed the relationship, citing the church's support for Ssempa.
Dr. Sands stated that "Pastor Ssempa's support of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would criminally penalize homosexuals, is in direct conflict with the overarching public health goals of the health district."
As written, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill would impose the death penalty on HIV-positive people caught in homosexual intimacy. Non-HIV positive gays could get life in prison. In Uganda, support for the bill is driven by a coalition of Muslim and evangelical clergy, with Martin Ssempa leading the charge via local demonstrations and the international media. Despite Ssempa's vocal promotion of the bill, Canyon Ridge Christian Church has stuck by him, declining to condemn his harsh anti-gay rhetoric or the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
In the past, Southern Nevada partnered with Canyon Ridge church to offer HIV testing on site, most recently on June 27, the National HIV Testing Day. Calling it "unfortunate that we will be unable to continue to work together as community partners," Sands said the action was necessary to remain consistent with basic principles of public health practice.
Sands further explained: "One of the central tenets of public health is to provide services without judgment. We also apply this principle in working with our various partners. However, we are profoundly concerned about your partnership with Pastor Ssempa as it contradicts this central tenet in that it amounts to tacit approval of activities that violate the basic human rights that should be afforded to all Ugandans."
Despite the action last week, Southern Nevada did not rule out a relationship with the church in the future. Sands urged Canyon Ridge to reconsider its support for those who promote harsh legal measures toward gays in Uganda, saying, "I believe both of our missions will be better accomplished through the support of programs and activities that promote tolerance and acceptance."