Now Legal in S.C., Across U.S.
S.C. gay rights activists praise high court ruling that voids sodomy
laws in 13 states
June 27, 2003
By Rick Brundrett, Staff Writer
South Carolina gay rights advocates hailed Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court
decision striking down sodomy laws nationwide as a ruling that they hope will
end all discrimination against gays and lesbians.
“This is our emancipation proclamation,” said Ed Madden, a gay USC
associate professor and volunteer with the S.C. Gay and Lesbian Pride
Movement. “The state .’.’. cannot say I’m a felon and a second-class
Ruling in a Texas case, the normally conservative U.S. Supreme Court, in a
6-3 vote, said sodomy laws are an illegal invasion of privacy. The court
reversed its position of 17 years ago in a Georgia case.
The ruling voids South Carolina’s approximately 300-year-old sodomy law
and similar laws in 12 other states, including Texas.
“The (Texas) case does involve two adults, who with full and mutual
consent from each other, engaged in sexual practices common to the homosexual
lifestyle,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. “The state
cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private
sexual conduct a crime.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative justices, charged in
his dissent that the court has “taken sides in the culture war, departing
from its role of assuring, as neutral observer, that the democratic rules of
engagement are observed.”
“Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual
conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as
teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home,” he
wrote. “They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a
lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive.”
S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster said Thursday the ruling’s
“potential ramifications upon our laws are complex and troubling.” His
office had joined Utah and Alabama in a legal brief supporting Texas’ sodomy
“Texas, just like South Carolina, has the fundamental right and authority
as a sovereign state to enact laws prohibiting behavior deemed inappropriate
and detrimental to the state,” he said. “The citizens of our state
.’.’. have seen fit to have our law against sodomy in effect since the
lord proprietors governed South Carolina.”
McMaster, a Republican, said gay rights advocates might try to use the
ruling to overturn laws banning same-sex marriages, although he pointed out
the majority of justices did not address that question.
Hector Vargas, the lawyer-director of the southern regional office of
Lambda Legal, a national gay rights organization that challenged the Texas
law, said Thursday that “it’s really early to tell how it will affect
(same-sex) marriages and other issues.”
All 50 states had sodomy laws as of the 1960s. But states began abolishing
those laws with the emergence of the gay rights movement, and about half had
done so by the early 1980s.
South Carolina’s sodomy law—called in the criminal code the
“abominable crime of buggery”—has been around since 1712. A person
convicted of the felony faces a maximum five-year prison sentence and a $500
The Texas case involved John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, arrested in
1998 after police went to Lawrence’s Houston home on what was later
determined to be a false weapons report and found them having sex. They were
jailed overnight and each fined $200.
Unlike Texas, South Carolina’s sodomy law applies to gay and straight
couples. Prosecution of sodomy in South Carolina has been rare in recent
years. There were 7,609 gay and lesbian households in the state, the 2000
In his dissent, Scalia said state laws against “bigamy, same-sex
marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication,
bestiality and obscenity” are all “called into question by today’s
Conservative state Rep. John Graham Altman, R-Charleston, said Thursday
he’s concerned that the ruling—which he said he hadn’t read—could be
interpreted to allow incest between consenting adults. He said there would be
“a revolution in this country” if that happens.
Nekki Shutt, chairwoman of the S.C. Equality Coalition, an umbrella
organization of gay rights and AIDS awareness groups, said the ruling means
“consenting adults have the right of privacy in their homes to engage in any
type of sexual practice that they choose.”
“This court recognized that this is a fundamental human right,” said
Shutt, a Columbia lawyer and adjunct USC law professor.
For years, South Carolina’s sodomy law has been used to discriminate
against homosexuals in employment, child custody, visitation and adoption
cases, said Columbia lawyer Harriet Hancock, founder of the state chapter of
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians And Gays, or PFLAG.
She predicted Thursday’s ruling will help end those practices, but said
attitudes about homosexuals will change slowly in South Carolina.
“For years, it was OK to tell jokes about African-Americans,” she said.
“With gays and lesbians, it’s still OK to tell horrible jokes about them.
Hopefully, that will go by the wayside, too.”
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