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'The rainbow belongs to God': Anti-gay US pastor sets sights on Sochi Olympics

Scott Lively, a pastor in Springfield, Mass., is facing an unprecedented lawsuit that alleges he persecuted gays in Uganda, committing a "crime against humanity," even as he takes credit for anti-gay legislation in Russia. Christopher Churchill

When President Vladimir Putin recently banned “homosexual propaganda” in Russia, he joined sides in a new global culture war: a struggle to stop the march of gay rights abroad even as advocates wave rainbow flags in America. Now, as the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics approach, both sides are bracing for unrest — and an American pastor is taking credit for the law that started it all.

Scott Lively is a hero to some, a demon to others and a joke to still more. From his home in Springfield, Mass., he runs Abiding Truth Ministries, a church dedicated to combating “the homosexual agenda,” and Holy Grounds Coffee Shop, where the faithful gather for java and Jesus. Lively also sermonizes overseas, promoting his books — most notably The Pink Swastika, which traces the Nazi Party to a gay bar — and portraying gay love as a “dark force” in human history responsible for the Inquisition, American slavery and the Holocaust.

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Last month a federal judge allowed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit to proceed against Lively that alleges the pastor persecuted gays in Uganda and committed a potential “crime against humanity” — one that contributed to a bill that would have made homosexuality an act punishable by death. And yet the grey-haired 57-year-old has refused to quiet down.

On his blog this month, Lively praised Putin as “the defender of Christian civilization” for signing this summer a ban on information that treats being gay as valid or attractive — and traced the idea to his own tour of Russia in 2006-7. Last week, Lively suggested Russian officials foil gay activists planning to rainbow-bomb the Olympics by flying a rainbow banner over the games so “the global homosexual movement” would be reminded that “the rainbow belongs to God!”

In his first interview since a U.S. district court judge refused to dismiss the case against him, Lively shrugged off the lawsuit, touted his rising global influence and seemed to dare civil rights advocates to launch another assault on him. “Come what may, I will continue to advocate for the Biblical view of family until my final breath,” he pledged, because “we’re talking about civilization — good and evil being played out in the United States and all around the world.”

A global campaign against gay 'disorder'

Lively has reason to be a bit cocky. America may have “fallen to the gays,” he says, but much of the world still fears them and Lively is working to keep it that way.

In Moldova in 2011, according to Human Rights Watch, he helped several cities declare themselves “gay-free zones” and organized an “emergency” campaign to block a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus he met with politicians and pastors, fostering talk of new curbs on gay rights. Every place he goes, Lively says, his goal is to block the open expression of homosexuality, keep discrimination legal and make pro-gay advocacy a crime.

To whip up support for such policies, Lively simply shares his beliefs about gay people: They’re dangerous predators, even killers. And they caught this gay “disorder” through “an evil game of tag,” a chain of abuse in which gays recruit kids into sodomy just as they were once recruited. In this way homosexuality spreads like “a social cancer,” he claims, until nothing remains of the Christian world.

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It’s unclear where Lively gets his virulent science, since study after study suggests homosexuality begins with biology not abuse, but his political strategy is easy to trace. It’s an export straight from the American culture wars of the 1990s, when Lively was communications director of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, then the largest anti-gay political group in America. OCA pioneered the idea of criminalizing gay advocacy, convincing more than a dozen Oregon suburbs to forbid anything that may “promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality” — much as Putin has done in Russia.

“Yes, I think I influenced the Russian law,” Lively said. While some gay rights activists still think he’s just a laughingstock, Boris Dittrich, the director of LGBT advocacy for Human Rights Watch, tends to confirm Lively’s claims. Russia was plenty homophobic before Lively’s arrival but the American pastor appears to have given shape to that free-floating hatred, Dittrich said. As he passed through Russia’s regions, Lively met with politicians and bans on homosexual propaganda followed, spreading to more than a half-dozen areas before Putin swept them into a national standard.

Lively — who calls himself the “father” of Uganda’s anti-gay movement — also shared the first sharp details of his work in Eastern Europe and responded to the rise in hate crimes that seems to follow him around the globe.

'It's a war between Christians and homosexuals'

In 2006, Lively served as California state director of the American Family Association in Sacramento and fought the “homosexualization” of public schools. He befriended Alexey Ledyaev, charismatic pastor of New Generation, a Latvian megachurch with more than 200 branches worldwide. Together they founded Watchmen on the Walls, a network of activists who pledged to guard the Kingdom of Christ against the siege of homosexuality — and by fall of that year Lively was on a Watchmen trip to Russia. 

He landed in Vladivostok, Russia’s largest port on the Pacific Ocean, boarding a train for a 22-hour journey north to Blagoveshchensk, a river city on the border of China. He recalled feeling “just like Dr. Zhivago! Red velvet curtains, a samovar at the end of each car, passing through endless birch forests.” For 10 days Lively used “Blago” as a hub, shuttling in and out of nearby communities, shouting Paul Revere-like warnings of a gay invasion.

By February 2007 he was back in the States in high spirits, bearing a 45-minute highlight reel that he screened at an OCA reunion in Portland. It repeatedly referred to gays as “terrorists,” showed members of the Watchmen interrupting a pride parade in Riga (with bags of feces, according media reports), and included a cross-national howl from a Latvian member of the Watchmen. “Your generation beat the Nazis, and our country beat the Communists,” the activist said. “Together we will defeat the homosexuals!”

A month or so later, Lively was back on the circuit, speaking at the World Congress of Families conference in Warsaw before hopping to Riga, his base for the next several months. He preached in churches, lectured in universities, took the podium at conferences. He sat down with pro-family leaders, pastors and a few members of parliament. 

Holy Grounds Coffee Shop in Springfield, Mass., where Lively's followers gather. Abiding Truth Ministries, Lively's church, is dedicated to combating what he calls "the homosexual agenda." Christopher Churchill

Old videos from the now-defunct Watchmen website reveal some highlights. A stop in Riga in May 2007, where Lively called gay rights “the most dangerous political movement in the world.” A three-day conference in Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, in August. There Lively addressed an auditorium filled with 1,000 Christians, six ushers on hand to help with security and seating, the stage kitted out to look like a medieval wall.

“There is a war that is going on in the world,” Lively said through a translator. “There is a war that is waging across the entire face of the globe. It’s been waging in the United States for decades, and it’s been waging in Europe for decades. It’s a war between Christians and homosexuals.”

Suit could decide fight to restore 'godliness to society'

Regardless of whether Lively inspired Putin’s crackdown, he’s been accused of inspiring violence against gay people. He says he only preaches compassion – “love the sinner, hate the sin,” he likes to say – and although he gets blamed for it he didn’t actually support Uganda’s proposed death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” He believes gays should be pushed from public life, their “recovery” supported in private. And yet where Lively’s message goes, violence seems to follow.

In Oregon in 1992, a same-sex couple died when their house was firebombed during OCA’s campaign to declare homosexuality “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” In Sacramento in 2007, a gay man was called a “faggot” and punched to death by a stranger in a park. In Uganda in 2011, the country’s first openly gay man had his skull caved in. And right now in Russia and in the former Soviet states, there’s been a surge in homophobic vigilantism, including a torrent of shaming videos, some depicting gay teens being tortured by skinheads. Lively has not been linked to any of these crimes but we asked: Couldn’t his talk of predatory gays, “good and evil,” and “war” have played a role? 

“Wow, that’s a leap,” said Lively, who sees his work as advocacy in the public interest, no different from campaigning against drunk drivers. 

Others don’t think it’s a leap. “Words have consequences,” said Mark Potok, an editor at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that gives Lively’s ministry a pin in its national map of “hate groups.”

Pamela Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the group pursuing Lively for alleged “crimes against humanity” in Uganda, said she is prepared to file a second lawsuit related to his work in Russia and the surrounding countries, assuming there’s evidence that Lively was “an architect of the persecutory program” there.

And that’s why the case against Lively is so important, gay-rights activists say. As the Olympics draw nearer and the boycotts and homophobic backlash continue, Putin will be the guy paraded down the world’s front pages and social media feeds. But Lively may be the secret agent to watch.

If he loses his lawsuit he could be prohibited from spreading his message abroad, a terrible precedent for other anti-gay crusaders. However if he wins, he emerges stronger than ever, the self-described “hero” of an expanding fight to restore “godliness to society,” as he puts it – or else “pull as many people as possible into the lifeboat before the ship goes down.”

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