Virginia Panel Kills Sodomy Reform
February 24, 2000
Even legally married couples who engage in oral sex will remain felons in Virginia,
where a state Senate committee rejected lower penalties for "crimes against
After progressing farther than ever before, reform of Virginia's venerable "crimes
against nature" law is not going to come from the legislature this year a
state Senate Committee vote killed it February 23. However, a legal challenge before the
state Court of Appeals is pending, brought by a dozen men caught in a police sting in a
Roanoke park. Three other men caught in that same sting were able to convince trial juries
that the law is used to discriminate against gays and lesbians, even though on paper it
applies equally to heterosexual and homosexual acts.
Delegate Karen Darner (D-Arlington) has repeatedly introduced bills to repeal the law,
which makes a felony of oral and anal sex even when performed in private between
consenting adults theoretically, even if they are a legally married couple.
Ironically, prostitutes engaging in intercourse are less severely punished. This year
Darner proposed instead to modify the sections dealing with consenting adults to reduce
them from felonies punishable with up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500,
to Class 4 misdemeanors punishable with a $250 fine and no possibility of jail. Felony
convictions, unlike misdemeanors, mean loss of voting rights and loss of many types of
professional credentials. This approach edged through to approval from the Virginia House
of Delegates last week by a 50 - 49 vote, an historic state "first" for sodomy
reform. (Republican Delegate Lacey Putney of Bedford was absent for the House vote due to
illness, but has since said he would certainly have voted against reform, preventing
However on February 23, the Senate Courts and Justice Committee voted to kill the bill
for the year (the count was variously reported as 8 - 6, 9 - 5 and 9 - 6). The
"Richmond Times-Dispatch" attributed the vote to pressure on Republican Senators
from social and religious conservatives within their party; only one socially conservative
Democrat voted against the bill. Looking ahead, Darner sees a need to educate fearful
legislators and possibly a change to a Class 1 or 2 misdemeanor rather than Class 4, so
that judges can impose jail sentences if they see fit.
Among the witnesses whose testimony failed to move the Senate panel was Loree Erickson
of Richmond, whose disabilities have required the use of a wheelchair since her childhood.
She told the lawmakers, "Under Virginia law, I'm a felon. It's now considered a
felony for me to express intimacy with the person I love the only way I can."
Testifying in support of the existing felony law were lobbyists from the Family
Foundation and the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists. Representing the latter
group, Jack Knapp told the Committee that the law should be preserved as public policy
even though "You know and I know that there are no police in the bedroom." He
said, "This is a time for strengthening the moral fiber of the Commonwealth. Reducing
the penalty won't do that."
Family Foundation lobbyist Robin Dejarnette said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there is
no constitutional right to engage in homosexual acts. States' rights to regulate private
sex acts between consenting adults were upheld in the high court's 5 - 4 decision in 1986
in Bowers v. Hardwick, in which Georgia gay Michael Hardwick was literally
arrested for having sex in his own bedroom in his own home. The late Justice Lewis Powell
reviewed the case after his retirement from the bench and admitted years later that based
on the strength of the arguments, he should have sided with the minority instead of the
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