Sodomy Case Heads Toward Resolution
Virginia Court of Appeals to Hear Oral Arguments Week of Sept. 12
July 21, 2000
By Bill Roundy
A court case challenging the constitutionality of the Virginia sodomy law is heading
toward a tentative resolution. Both sides have filed briefs in the case, and a three-judge
panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments during the week of Sept.
The case arises from 10 men charged with soliciting undercover police officers for sex
in a public park in Roanoke. The men have argued that the states "Crimes
Against Nature" law is an unconstitutional infringement on the privacy rights of all
Virginians. Assistant Attorney General John McLees is trying to limit the scope of the
case, however, arguing in a brief that "these defendants, who solicited homosexual
oral sodomy from strangers in a public park" have no right to argue that the law
infringes on the rights of married couples."
"Whatever may be the privacy rights of consenting married adults acting in
private, these defendants certainly did not fit into that category, and cannot ride on the
constitutional coattails of those who do," McLees writes. Furthermore, he argues,
there is no constitutional protection for homosexual sodomy.
Sam Garrison, the openly Gay attorney who is arguing against the law, is trying to make
the case as expansive as possible. Because the "Crimes Against Nature" law
applies to acts of oral or anal sex by any person in the state, regardless of gender or
marital relationship, and because police have testified that they are willing to use the
law against heterosexual couples, the men charged in this case are essentially "in
the same boat" with every other Virginian, Garrison says.
"These are not gay rights cases," states Garrisons brief.
"They involve instead the fundamental right of 4½ million adult Virginians, male,
female, married, unmarried, straight, gay, whatever, to be free from even the threat of
needless, pointless, and unjustified governmental intrusion into areas where they have a
reasonable expectation of privacy."
In a reply to the commonwealths brief, Garrison also asked the court to consider
the indiscriminate breadth of the sodomy law in the interests of practicality.
"It is just a matter of time, indeed perhaps a very short time, before another
case is before the court presenting essentially the same questions as are presented
here," Garrison notes. Another court case, Fisher v. Commonwealth, a case of
a man convicted of consensual sodomy with a woman in a hotel room, is currently working
its way through the appeal process, and by acting now the court could give guidance to
lower courts in dealing with such cases, Garrison says.
The 29-page brief filed by the Attorney Generals Office in defense of the law
relies heavily on the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case Bowers
v. Hardwick, which held that prohibitions on homosexual sodomy do not violate the
federal right to privacy. The right to privacy inherent in the Virginia Constitution, the
brief argues, is no broader than the federal definition.
Furthermore, McLees warns that finding constitutional protections to engage in private
sexual behavior is "inappropriate because its ultimate result will be the prohibition
of any criminal statutes that regulate private, consensual conduct, such as fornication,
adultery, prostitution, and even assisted suicide."
Garrison refutes these claims in a reply to the states brief. The Virginia
Constitution has a stronger right to privacy than the U.S. Constitution, he says, because
of "Declaration of Independence"-style language regarding liberty and the
pursuit of happiness that is not included in the federal Constitution. Garrison also
questions the constitutional authority of Bowers v. Hardwick. Because retired
Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell later stated that the dissent in Bowers
"had the better case," and because of the Supreme Courts ruling in Romer
v. Evans (where the court struck down a Colorado amendment prohibiting civil rights
protections based on sexual orientation), Garrison argues in the brief that "the
Bowers decision is already headed the way of Dred Scotts Case and Plessy
v. Ferguson into disrespect and legal disrepute indeed, into the ash heap of
ill-advised federal constitutional law decisions destined eventually to be
Another element of the appeal rests on the separation of church and state. Because the
"Crimes Against Nature" law has no secular justification, Garrison asserts, and
is based solely on religious prohibitions of sodomy, it serves as an "impermissible
establishment of sectarian religious views."
The commonwealths brief deals with this matter only briefly, stating flatly that
"the Virginia statutes valid secular legislative purpose is to enforce and
preserve public morality as that concept is envisioned by the electoral majority.
The statute has nothing to do with an establishment of religion, any more than does
Virginias proscription against murder."
Each side will have an opportunity to continue the argument during the week of Sept. 12
in Salem, Va., when they will be given 15 minutes each to testify and answer questions
from a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals. The exact date of the hearing has not
yet been determined, according to a clerk of the court.
Regardless of the Court of Appeals decision, the status of the "Crimes
Against Nature" law will probably not be totally resolved, Garrison told the Blade.
The appeals court decision can be appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, and it is likely
that whichever side "loses" at the Court of Appeals level will seek redress in
the higher court.
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