Last edited: February 14, 2005

Virginia Panel Kills Sodomy Reform

PlanetOut, 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 nature."

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 passage.)

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 majority.

[Home] [News] [Virginia]