(Photo: White House/Pete Souza)
U.S. President Barack Obama talked to Senegal President Macky Sall on Thursday about the importance of respecting all people, including gays, though Senegal's president argued that his country is not homophobic despite its ban on homosexuality. Sall reminded Obama that Senegal and America also disagree on other issues, such as capital punishment, which Senegal has abolished.
"I believe at the root of who we are as a people, who we are as Americans is the basic precept that we are all equal under the law. We believe in basic fairness. And what I think yesterday's ruling signifies is one more step towards ensuring that those basic principles apply to everybody," the U.S. president said at a joint press conference with Sall as he cited Wednesday's Supreme Court rulings.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled to strike down a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, allowing same-sex married couples the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. It also turned down an appeal to challenge a lower court overturning California's Proposition 8, an amendment that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This clears the way for same-sex couples to marry in California.
Same-sex marriage is also legal in 12 other states and the District of Columbia.
Meanwhile, same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Senegal, and can be punished by a fine and up to five years in prison.
When asked whether he pressed Sall on working toward decriminalizing homosexuality in Senegal, Obama said that the topic was not brought up between the two.
"The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they're treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa," the U.S. president said. "So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions."
Obama argued, however, that he does not believe in discrimination of any sort, reminding people that America has had a long history of fighting for civil rights and equal rights.
"Every world religion has this basic notion that is embodied in the Golden Rule – treat people the way you want to be treated. And I think that applies here as well," he stated.
Sall highlighted Obama's message that respecting human beings and practicing non-discrimination is something that all nations can share, but insisted that there cannot be a standard model which is applicable to all countries and the laws they decide to establish.
"We have different religions. We have different traditions. And even in countries where this has been decriminalized and homosexual marriage is allowed, people don't share the same views," said the president of Senegal, where close to 94 percent of the population follows Islam.
"Senegal, as far as it is concerned, is a very tolerant country which does not discriminate in terms of inalienable rights of the human being," he continued. "We don't tell anybody that he will not be recruited because he is gay or he will not access a job because his sexual orientation is different. But we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality. I've already said it in the past, in our Cabinet meeting it is Senegal's option, at least for the time being, while we have respect for the rights of homosexuals – but for the time being, we are still not ready to change the law."
Sall argued that this does not mean that Senegal is a homophobic nation, and that these are issues the people will have to "absolve and digest."
He also reminded Obama and the press that there are other social issues that nations disagree with – Senegal abolished the death penalty in 1994, while the state of Texas alone carried out its 500th execution earlier this week since capital punishment was reinstated in America in 1976. The Senegal president added that "we do respect the choice of each country."
Obama is also set to travel to South Africa and Tanzania during his African trip to hold talks with leaders from government, business, and civil society on a variety of topics.