ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In Uganda, a bill to criminalize homosexuality is moving ahead in the legislature. If passed, it would punish some gay behavior with death. The bill has been a major headache for American churches with ties to the bill's supporters. Rick Warren and other Evangelical leaders have condemned it.
But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, one U.S. mega church is standing by its Ugandan partner.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: You can't mistake what Pastor Martin Ssempa thinks about homosexuality.
Mr. MARTIN SSEMPA (Pastor, Makerere Community Church): This is sick and it's therefore deviant. We do not want it.
HAGERTY: Ssempa, who pastors an evangelical Christian church, has become the face of Uganda's anti-homosexuality movement. He organizes anti-gay rallies, preaches that many homosexuals are pedophiles and shows hardcore gay pornography that critics say whips up sentiment against gay men and lesbians.
Michael Jones is a gay-rights activist in the United States.
Mr. MICHAEL JONES (Gay Rights Activist): Martin Ssempa makes no bones about going around to churches, to community centers, to different neighborhoods and saying things like gays and lesbians should be put in prison, they should be killed.
HAGERTY: And if they anti-homosexuality bill is passed, that's what will happen. The bill imposes a death penalty for gay sex with a minor or having sex with your gay partner if you are HIV positive. Two consenting adults can get life in prison and a straight person who knows someone who is gay and doesn't report it could get prison time as well.
So why does Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas - a mega church with some 6,000 congregants - financially support Martin Ssempa?
Mr. KEVIN ODOR (Pastor, Canyon Ridge Christian Church): His heart is not to kill people. He is a pastor of the Gospel that believes in redemption and his heart is to redeem people.
HAGERTY: Senior pastor Kevin Odor says Canyon Ridge began supporting Ssempa's huge campus ministry, which preaches abstinence to college students, in 2007. So does this mean Odor endorses the death penalty or life sentences for gay men and lesbians?
Mr. ODOR: Personally, no.
HAGERTY: So, why do you support someone who does?
Mr. ODOR: We want to help the AIDS problem in Africa, and we found somebody who is making a difference, and so we support him.
HAGERTY: Odor says in March, after Canyon Ridge talked to Ssempa, the Ugandan minister reversed himself and now says he favors removing the death penalty from the bill, though he still wants to criminalize homosexuality. That satisfied Pastor Odor, and he sees no reason to condemn Ssempa or the bill.
Mr. ODOR: Why do we, as a church of America, need to say something about a bill in Uganda?
Mr. JONES: They're engaging in Ugandan politics whether they like it or not.
HAGERTY: Again, gay rights activist Michael Jones.
Mr. JONES: Calling Martin Ssempa, who is one of the foremost religious and political figures in Uganda, a strategic partner is automatically engaging in Ugandan politics. There's just no way around that.
HAGERTY: Pastor Odor says his church has, quote, "a heart" for gays. Canyon Ridge participates every year in a march for people with AIDS, and for the past two years the church has opened its campus for HIV testing day.
Mr. ODOR: We love everybody, including people with AIDS. There's two things: How you got AIDS and that you have AIDS. That you have AIDS is a matter of compassion.
HAGERTY: Warren Throckmorton, a professor at the evangelical Grove City College, says Odor is trying to have it both ways, seeking to look compassionate in the United States.
Mr. ODOR: And yet they are supporting a set of values and principles elsewhere that are very harsh and deadly, frankly, to the very community you say you want to reach. If you preach compassion here, you have to support compassion elsewhere.
HAGERTY: On Friday, the Southern Nevada Health District severed its ties with the church, saying it was profoundly concerned about the relationship with Ssempa. For his part, Odor says the church is only trying to help people with AIDS, and because of that, he says, we are being crucified.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.