Last edited: December 19, 2004

Kansas Supreme Court Hears Gay Teen Appeal, August 31, 2004

By Newscenter Staff

Topeka, Kansas—The American Civil Liberties Union today asked the Kansas Supreme Court to reduce the sentence of a young man who is serving 16 years more in prison than he would if he were heterosexual because of Kansas’s so-called “Romeo and Juliet” law. The law makes sexual relations with a minor a lesser crime if both people are teens, but only applies to opposite-sex relations.

“The Constitution guarantees that all citizens are supposed to be treated equally, but Matthew Limon is set to be in prison until he is 36 years old, while he would have been released before turning 20 if he were heterosexual,” said Dick Kurtenbach, Executive Director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. “We’re not saying the state shouldn’t punish those who break the law. We are only asking that the state do the right thing and treat gay teenagers the same as it does straight teenagers.”

In February of 2000, Limon and another male teenager were both students at the same residential school for developmentally disabled youth in Miami County, Kansas. A week after Limon’s 18th birthday, he performed consensual oral sex on the other teenager, who was nearly 15 years old—three years, one month and a few days younger. Because Kansas’s so-called “Romeo and Juliet” law gives much lighter sentences to heterosexual teenagers who have sex with younger teens but specifically excludes gay teenagers, Limon was sentenced to 17 years in prison. A heterosexual teenager with the same record would serve no longer than 15 months for the same offense.

After the Kansas Court of Appeals upheld the conviction in January, the Kansas Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The ACLU had taken Limon’s case back to the lower court after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the court to reconsider the matter in light of the Supreme Court’s decision last summer in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down all same-sex-only sodomy laws.

“The excuses that Kansas is trying to use for sentencing a gay teen to a prison term 13 times longer than a straight teen would receive for the same offense have all been proven wrong by social welfare and public health experts,” said James Esseks, Litigation Director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, who argued the appeal before the Kansas Supreme Court this afternoon. “Equal protection for all citizens means that a state has to justify treating one group of Americans so much more harshly than it does others, and there is no justification here.”

In friend-of-the-court briefs filed earlier this month, several social work and public health organizations took the state to task for its attempts to justify the harsher sentences for gay teens. In one brief, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and its Kansas chapter debunked the state’s claims that the length of Limon’s sentence is justified because young people who engage in same-sex intimacy are so impressionable that they may be swayed into becoming gay. The NASW pointed to social science evidence that same-sex attractions surface much earlier in life—well before puberty—and that one gay sexual experience can’t make someone “turn” gay.

In another brief, several public health groups, including the American Public Health Association and its Kansas chapter, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and the National Minority AIDS Council, analyzed the state’s claims that the “Romeo and Juliet” law will help prevent HIV transmission, pointing out that the law ignores the realities of HIV transmission among heterosexuals, particularly women. The public health groups also pointed out that the risk of a male acquiring HIV through unprotected oral sex with another male—precisely what Limon is being punished for—is extremely low.

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