Rhode Island Moves to End Sodomy Ban
New York Times, May 10,
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By Carey Goldberg
BOSTON -- Only five people spoke on the bill, and the tally was an
undramatic 49-40. But when the Rhode Island House of Representatives voted on Thursday to
lift the state's ban on sodomy, it took "perhaps the biggest step in 15 years on
these archaic laws," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Edith Ajello, said on Friday.
Like 20 other states, Rhode Island still has a law against sodomy -- defined as oral or
anal sex, and described in the 102-year-old law as "abominable and detestable crimes
against nature." Violators face a maximum prison term of 20 years.
Around the country, 24 state legislatures and five state courts have done away with
their sodomy laws, acting mainly during legal overhauls in the 1970s; in the remainder,
moves by civil and gay rights groups to repeal the laws arise periodically. The last
successful legislative move to repeal a sodomy law still in effect occurred in Nevada in
1993, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Now, Rhode Island seems well on its way to emulating Nevada. A parallel sodomy bill
appears to have equally strong support in the state senate, which is expected to vote on
it soon. Supporters cite several factors at work in favor of the proposed legislation,
This year, for the first time, advocates for the disabled have been arguing publicly
that sodomy laws forbid what can be the only kind of sex possible for the
wheelchair-bound; a Rhode Island judge ruled in a trial last month that the sodomy law,
because it applies differently to married and unmarried couples, violates the state
constitution's equal protection clause; and, in general, Ms. Ajello, a Democrat from
Providence, said: "Times have changed. People have become more broad-minded."
But there has been outspoken opposition to the sodomy law's repeal from some
conservative and Christian groups.
At a recent hearing on the law, the Rev. Richard Donnelly, pastor of St. Mark's Roman
Catholic Church in Cranston, R.I., argued, "Even your ordinary dictionary calls
sodomy a crime against nature."
If the repeal passes, he said, why not change the God-respecting name of Providence to
Sodom? That would indicate "how far we have moved from the moral values of the
Bible," he said.
John Roney, the state senator sponsoring the senate version of the bill, countered at
the hearing that surveys had found that 75 percent of the population had engaged in oral
sex. Even if everyone knows there are no bedroom police checking up on them, he said,
there is a danger inherent in laws that everyone violates, placing themselves at the mercy
of prosecutors and the police.
"We are a government of laws, not a government of men," he said.
"Everyone in this room has violated this law at one point or another." (No one
among about 30 people crowding the room contradicted him.)
Steve Brown of the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union similarly
argued, "Laws like that simply should not be on the books because they only allow for
the most arbitrary enforcement imaginable, and everybody should be concerned about giving
the police that kind of power."
Repeal advocates say the authorities mainly use sodomy laws in two cases: against gay
men caught having sex in places like parks or cars, and against rape suspects who say
their victims consented to sex. In some states, such laws have also been used in custody
and employment battles to justify discrimination against homosexuals.
The Rhode Island attorney general, Jeffrey Pine, has said he opposes outright repeal of
the sodomy law, although he would be willing to amend it so that it no longer applies to
acts by two consenting adults.
A spokesman for Pine, Gregg Perry, said the law's value "is that there are human
victims of sexual assault which, if you were to decriminalize the statute, you wouldn't be
able to charge those cases."
For example, Perry said, the sodomy law is useful in cases in which an authority figure
like a religious leader uses his position, but not criminal force, to coerce a victim into
Similarly, prosecutors say, juries are sometimes uncertain about whether an alleged
rape victim consented to sex. If, as an alleged rapist describes the scene of consensual
sex, he admits to sodomy, that allows the jury to convict him of a lesser charge.
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