Last edited: December 05, 2004

Virgina House Oks Sodomy Bill

Legislation Would Reduce Penalty To Misdemeanor

Washington Blade, February 18, 2000

By Bill Roundy

A bill to reduce the penalty for oral sex in Virginia squeaked by the House of Delegates on Tuesday by a single vote, and it is now on its way to a Senate committee. The bill passed with a vote of 50-49, with the House’s one independent delegate, Lacey Putney (Bedford), not voting.

House Bill 718, proposed by Del. Karen Darner (D-Arlington), is the first bill addressing Virginia’s "Crimes Against Nature" law, which makes any act of oral or anal sex a felony in Virginia a felony, to ever make it out of committee in the Virginia legislature, let alone to clear a chamber.

"This is very exciting and disheartening in the same breath," said Shirley Lesser, the executive director of Virginians for Justice, a statewide group that lobbies for Gay civil rights.

Despite the close vote, Virginians for Justice lobbyist David Scoven says that the bill actually had widespread support in the House. Many legislators, however, were reluctant to go on the record and vote for the bill, he says.

"Ninety-five percent of [the delegates] want it to pass, but they didn’t want to take the heat for it if they didn’t have to," said Scoven.

"This is a bill that lessens the penalty for sodomy," Lesser said, "and our ultimate goal is to repeal the Crimes Against Nature law for consenting adults."

HB 718 seeks to reduce the penalty for consensual sodomy between adults from a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, to a Class 3 misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of a $250 fine. Reducing the penalty from a felony will remove some of excesses of the sodomy law, so those convicted of having oral sex would no longer lose the right to vote or hold professional licenses.

Darner spoke in support of the bill during its second reading on the floor of the House on Feb. 14, the Associated Press reported.

"Let’s wake up to reality and make Virginia for lovers again," Darner told her colleagues on the House floor, referring to the state’s tourism slogan. Darner also argued that the law is unrealistic, because it makes a felony of something that occurs "every single day in the commonwealth."

Legislative efforts in the past have focused on repealing the provisions of the law that applied to adults, but VJ felt that that the less ambitious bill might get more support from conservative legislators who did not want to appear to be decriminalizing Gay sex.

The GOP recently took control of both legislative houses in Virginia, and Gov. James Gilmore, also a Republican, has been known pressure legislators who stray from the party line.

"You have to understand this in the context of the enormous pressure that the Republican leadership puts on young Delegates," says Scoven.

Several delegates told the VJ lobbyist that if the sodomy penalty reduction bill had been in jeopardy, they would have changed their votes to make sure that it passed. Once the bill had enough votes to pass, however, the legislators did not need to expend their political capital in voting for it.

The bill had earlier passed the House Courts of Justice Committee with a vote of just 12-11, and three of the Republican delegates who voted to approve the bill while in committee went on to vote against the bill on the floor. Those delegates were Dave Albo of Fairfax, Morgan Griffith of Salem, and Paul Harris of Rockingham.

"It’s hard to know what they were thinking, but we do owe them a certain amount of thanks" for getting the bill out of committee, said Scoven.

"A lot of people were looking out for us as best they could, or as best as they thought they could," he added.

Scoven, who is a new lobbyist for VJ this year, said he thinks that his approach may have also helped the penalty reduction bill along.

"I don’t stand up and talk about an issue solely from a Gay and Lesbian perspective," he says, especially in regards to the Crimes Against Nature law. "That’s something that affects everyone."

While testifying before the House Courts of Justice committee, Scoven emphasized the discrepancy in the law between the penalty for sodomy, a felony, and the penalty for prostitution, a misdemeanor.

"It’s a felony, unless you’re paying for it, in which case it’s a misdemeanor," he said. That argument, Scoven said, helped to sway several of the delegates, although, as usual, some delegates continued to voice their opposition to any change in the law.

"[Rep.] Dick Black [R-Loudoun], gave his basic ‘there’s going to be oral sex in the streets,’ speech," said Scoven. Black has been a consistent opponent of Gay civil rights bills.

If the bill passes the Senate and is signed by the governor, it could help efforts next year to entirely repeal the provisions of the Crimes Against Nature law that apply to consenting adults. The bill, as written, preserves the felony requirements for acts of incest or bestiality, but moves the language regarding oral and anal sex to a separate section, where it could be more easily excised.

"There are still some problems with this bill, and should this actually pass, then next year we’ll be leveraging those problems," Lesser said. "But this is far from a done deal."

The bill will now go to the Senate Courts of Justice committee, where its fate is uncertain.

"We understand that the Senate Courts of Justice committee is loaded with conservatives," said Scoven, "so we have to think about what we can do to get them on board."

VJ has urged its members to call their senators to encourage them to vote in favor of the penalty reduction bill.

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