House Votes to Repeal Law Against Sex Acts
The vote was 49 to 40 to repeal the 1896 law that makes illegal certain sex acts
between consenting adults.
May 8, 1998
75 Fountain Street,
Providence, RI 02902
By Scott MacKay
Journal-Bulletin State House Bureau
PROVIDENCE—After a spirited debate that touched on religion, gay
rights and privacy rights, the House yesterday voted to repeal Rhode Island's 102-year-old
law that makes it a crime for consenting adults—even married couples—to engage in
oral or anal sex.
The vote was 49 to 40 on the legislation sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence.
The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration.
At issue was the state's 1896 law that calls for a prison sentence of at last seven
years—and, potentially, up to 20 years—for anyone found guilty of engaging in oral
or anal sex, defined by the law as "an abominable and detestable crime against
Arguing for the bill, Ajello said it is too often used in rounding up men engaged in
homosexual sex. "When an arrest is made, a story written, lives are hurt.''
The law is an anachronism, Ajello said, that is selectively enforced, a relic of
"the Victorian era.''
And Ajello invoked noted American jurists Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. On
behalf of privacy, Brandeis said famously that "the right most valued by civilized
men is the right to be left alone.''
Quoting Holmes, Ajello said: "It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule
of law than that it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if
the grounds on which it was laid have vanished long since and the rule simply persists
from blind imitation of the past.''
Opposing repeal was Rep. Harold Metts, D-Providence, who cited the Bible and Christian
Metts said that repealing the law would amount to a "compromise with the devil . .
. When we sin we become abominable and detestable.''
Repealing the law would be tantamount to state sanction of homosexual sex acts, Metts
Metts said he came to his position after reading the Bible, fasting and praying.
Societies that allow such sexual practices wither from within, Metts said, their civic
culture fractured by godlessness and "moral and civil decline.''
Metts said he was upset by public displays of sex acts in parks, but Ajello countered
that other laws—such as lewd and lascivious conduct and disorderly conduct—already
on the books can be used to deter public sex.
Over the years the state Supreme Court has upheld the "abominable and detestable''
law, even as courts in other states threw out similar statutes.
But in the recent Block Island rape trial, sodomy charges against Edward F. McGovern—who was eventually acquitted of all charges—were dismissed by Superior Court Judge
Frank J. Williams.
Judge Williams ruled that the state's sodomy law violates the equal-protection clause
of the state Constitution because it treats married and unmarried couples differently.
Arguing for repeal, Rep. Denise Aiken-Salandria, D-Warwick, said that the only way that
some handicapped and wheelchair-bound Rhode Islanders can experience sexual pleasure is
through practices that are proscribed by the sodomy law.
The state attorney general's office too often charges a defendant with a violation of
the state's sodomy laws when it does not have sufficient evidence to make a tougher
charge, such as sexual assault, stick in court, said Rep. David Cicilline, D-Providence, a
criminal defense lawyer.
"If the attorney general . . . does not have sufficient evidence to bring charges
they ought not to be brought,'' Cicilline said.
Judith Ryder, of Scituate, president of the Eagle Forum of Rhode Island, who testified
against the bill in the House Judiciary Committee, said yesterday she will lobby against
the bill in the Senate.
"I wasn't very pleased at what they did today,'' said Ryder, whose organization
promotes "traditional'' values.
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