Maryland’s Criminal Ban on ‘Unnatural Sex’ Targeted by ACLU Class-Action
American Civil Liberties
For Immediate Release, February 5, 1998
BALTIMORE—The American Civil Liberties Union today
filed a class- action lawsuit challenging a Maryland law that criminalizes
intimate relations only between people of the same gender, asserting in court
papers that the law is unconstitutional.
The suit, filed this morning in Baltimore City Circuit Court on behalf of
five Maryland residents, including the Mayor Pro-Tem of Takoma Park, targets
the state’s "unnatural or perverted sexual practices" statute. The
law, which dates back to 1916, makes it a felony for lesbians and gay men to
engage in oral sex and attaches penalties of up to $1,000 or 10 years in
"The state has no business policing the private, intimate relations of
its citizens," said Dwight Sullivan, staff attorney with the ACLU of
Maryland. "Moreover, this law violates the very meaning of equal
protection by targeting only lesbians and gay men."
The ACLU’s complaint charges that the law violates the equal protection
and privacy rights of lesbians and gay men guaranteed by both the state and
Few people are sent to prison for engaging in oral sex, but such laws are
often used to deny lesbians and gay men a range of other rights, said Michael
Adams, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Lesbian and Gay Rights
Project, which is bringing the case together with the ACLU of Maryland.
"This case is about securing basic civil liberties," Adams said.
"Laws criminalizing sexual intimacy have been used in workplaces to deny
lesbians and gay men jobs. They have been used to take children away from
parents who are gay. They have even been used to arrest gay people for having
conversations that are no different from what one could expect to hear at a
bar, a singles dance, or a locker room."
Indeed, one of the plaintiffs in the case, a federal employee, was arrested
by Anne Arundel police officers simply because he agreed to go home with an
undercover male officer. As a result of the arrest record, he had difficulty
in obtaining a security clearance when he was promoted at his government job.
He has chosen to be identified only as "John Doe" in court papers
out of fear of losing his job.
The other plaintiffs in the case have never been charged with violating the
law, but they fear arrest and prosecution for engaging in intimate activities
with their partners.
Under the Maryland Constitution, plaintiff Bruce Williams, Mayor Pro- Tem
of Takoma Park, would lose his office if he were convicted under the
"unnatural sex" law. His partner Geoffrey Burkhart could be drummed
out of his job.
Plaintiffs Catherine Brennan of Baltimore and Lawrence Jacobs of Montgomery
County are lawyers who could have their professional licenses revoked because
violation of the "unnatural sex" law is considered a felony.
Combined, the ACLU said, the five represent a broad class of Maryland
individuals who are negatively impacted by the state’s law.
Laws criminalizing sexual intimacy, including sodomy, were once on the
books in all 50 states, but many have been repealed or struck down by the
courts as unconstitutional. Most recently, the Montana Supreme Court voided
its same-sex sodomy law last July, concluding that the government has no place
in the private bedrooms of consenting adults.
Sodomy and oral sex laws remain today in twenty-one states, 15 of which
target intimate activities for both gay and heterosexual couples. The
remaining six states, including Maryland, have laws that only target lesbians
and gay men. A same-sex law in Kansas is currently being challenged by the
ACLU before the state appeals court.
[Home] [News] [Maryland]