Last edited: February 14, 2005

Gay legislator introduces bill to repeal ban on homosexual sex

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Thursday, February 26, 1998
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By Kim Bell
Post-Dispatch Jefferson City Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -- The first openly gay member of the Missouri House is asking the Legislature to repeal the state's longtime ban on homosexual sex.

"We talk and we rail about big government being intrusive in our lives," said Rep. Tim Van Zandt, D-Kansas City. "This is a perfect example of having too much government."

In his fourth year in the Legislature, Van Zandt has filed a bill with 15 other sponsors to do away with Missouri's Sexual Misconduct Law, which criminalizes homosexual activity between consenting adults.

Missouri's sodomy statutes went into effect in 1856. Though rarely enforced, the law has stayed on the books and can land someone in jail for up to a year on a first offense and require a $1,000 fine.

Twenty states have laws banning deviate sexual intercourse, according to a national gay rights group. Of those, the bans in Missouri and five others apply only to gay couples.

At a hearing Wednesday, Van Zandt said his bill "is about two things: privacy and consent." His co-sponsor, Rep. Joan Bray, D-University City, said the current law is intrusive. "Why single out a particular relationship?"

The Missouri Family Network, a coalition of conservative grass-roots organizations, testified that repealing the law would threaten public health.

"This is a state law that defends public health from communicable diseases," Kerry Messer, a lobbyist for the Family Network, said in an interview. "If you repeal it, you lose your foundation for teaching children there are public health consequences.

"And you would clearly invoke a reverse morality issue."

Messer said there is no constitutional right to privacy.

"We have a lot of laws disallowing consensual activities, and drug use is one of those key areas," Messer said. "Polygamy is another area."

While Van Zandt openly admits his sexual orientation, he does not carry the banner for the gay movement and has taken pains not to have a single-issue image among his colleagues in the Legislature. He is better known for supporting legislation relating to the Kansas City police, zoning variances and a bistate cultural district.

The House Civil and Administrative Law Committee did not take a vote on the bill Wednesday. Only a few of the members asked questions, and most of those were directed at constitutional questions.

One committee member, Rep. David Levin, R-St. Louis County, noted during the hearing that the marble walls of the state Capitol have this inscription: "Nothing is politically right that is morally wrong."

Levin said, "We have to fall back on our personal moral code."

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-4, upheld a Georgia statute that criminalized consensual sodomy, saying the Constitution does not confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.

That same year, the Missouri law was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court. The case got that far after a judge in St. Louis County who thought the law was unconstitutional dismissed a case of attempted sexual misconduct against a Creve Coeur man in 1985. The man allegedly touched the genitals of an undercover police officer through the officer's clothing.

The Missouri Legislature can enact laws to bar homosexual activity because of the state's role in "implementing and promoting the public morality," the state Supreme Court said.

Illinois was the first state to decriminalize sodomy, said Patricia Logue, the Midwest managing attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense Fund. She said Missouri's law is "evidence of a state policy that you can discriminate against gay people. Beyond prosecution, it has an intimidating effect on the gay community. It's totally outrageous."

St. Louis police said they only crack down on homosexual activity when they get complaints from the public about gay men openly having sexual contact at rest areas or parks. Should the state law be repealed, police could still arrest people under a St. Louis city ordinance dealing with lewd behavior.

Messer and Van Zandt agree on one thing: The chances for the repeal this year are nil. Messer said most Missourians support current law. Van Zandt said he doubts the Legislature would want to tackle this issue in an election year. "People only want to do the safe thing," he said.

Van Zandt's bill is HB 1760.

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