Social Science, Attitudes Collide in Kansas Sodomy Case
City Star, September 4, 2004
By John Hanna, Associated Press
TOPEKA, Kan.—A criminal sodomy
case in Kansas has outsiders criticizing the state as backward, just as some
did during a controversy over whether to teach creationism alongside evolution
five years ago.
Matthew R. Limon is serving more than 17 years in prison
because, at 18, he performed a sex act on a 14-year-old boy. Had he been with
a girl, Limon could have faced 15 months behind bars.
One Kansas court, upholding the sentence, said the state
could justify the harsher punishment as protecting children’s traditional
development. Critics say such thinking goes against mainstream social
science—and that existing Kansas law discriminates against gays and
“It’s not a very pretty image,” said James Esseks,
an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Limon.
Esseks saw similarities to the evolution furor, prompted
by the State Board of Education’s rewriting science testing standards in
1999. But Limon’s supporters aren’t alone.
One supporter of Kansas’ current law said criticism of
the Limon ruling is the same sort of condemnation that was aimed at the Board
of Education for removing most references to evolution from its standards five
years ago. That condemnation helped elect new board members, who approved
evolution-friendly standards in 2001.
“It is a parallel,” said Matthew Staver, whose
Florida group, Liberty Counsel, helped some legislators draft a legal defense
of existing Kansas law.
The Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments in Limon’s
case this past week and could rule as soon as Oct. 15.
Limon committed his crime in February 2000, just after
turning 18. Court records say his encounter with a boy identified only as
M.A.R. was consensual, but Kansas law makes sex with someone under 16 illegal
in any circumstance. Limon’s juvenile record had two similar offenses.
He and M.A.R. lived at a Paola group home for the
developmentally disabled. In court, an official described M.A.R. as mildly
mentally retarded and Limon as functioning at a slightly higher level but not
as an 18-year-old.
Had M.A.R. been a girl, the state’s 1999 “Romeo and
Juliet” law would have applied. It specifies short prison sentences or
probation for sexual activity when an offender is under 19 and the age
difference between participants is less than four years—but only for
Someone violating the “Romeo and Juliet” law does not
have to register with local officials as a sex offender after leaving prison,
but a person convicted of criminal sodomy does.
According to the ACLU, five other states make the
distinction in “Romeo and Juliet” laws: Alabama, California, Georgia,
Texas and Virginia.
When a Kansas Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 against
Limon in January, Judge Henry W. Green Jr. suggested legislators might have
thought the different treatment would help combat disease, promote traditional
values or protect children still unsure of their identities. Green and
attorneys must speculate, because the legislative record contains no details
about what lawmakers were thinking.
Critics of the decision see a bias—also reflected in
the law—against homosexuality.
Others, like Staver, argue the decision reflects majority
views about morality, suggesting political pressure from gay rights activists
has influenced research for several decades. The Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of
the Traditional Values Coalition, called homosexuality “a social
But in written arguments filed with the Supreme Court,
the National Association of Social Workers said homosexuality is “a normal
expression of sexuality.”
The American Psychiatric Association stopped describing
homosexuality as a mental disorder in its diagnostic manuals more than 30
years ago. The APA also says orientation is not a conscious choice that
can—or should—be changed through therapy.
Further, a gay or lesbian experience will not “create a
homosexual,” said Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University
of Washington in Seattle. Sexual experimentation among adolescents is common,
“Maybe we don’t want to deal with it, but it’s
there,” said Schwartz, a past president of the Society for the Scientific
Study of Sexuality.
Schwartz finds Limon’s sentence “cruel,” adding,
“It’s frightening that kind of prejudice informs legal opinion.”
Such talk rankles Sheldon, who says people who view
homosexuality as wrong or as a disorder are “demonized” regularly.
Similarly, during the evolution controversy, backers of
the Board of Education’s actions complained about being demonized.
But Esseks said the common theme is how social
conservatives are intent “on putting their religious beliefs ahead of
And Limon’s case shows, he said, “Kansas being out of
the mainstream of the country.”
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