Last edited: September 06, 2004

Social Science, Attitudes Collide in Kansas Sodomy Case

Kansas City Star, September 4, 2004

By John Hanna, Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan.—A criminal sodomy case in Kansas has outsiders criticizing the state as backward, just as some did during a controversy over whether to teach creationism alongside evolution five years ago.

Matthew R. Limon is serving more than 17 years in prison because, at 18, he performed a sex act on a 14-year-old boy. Had he been with a girl, Limon could have faced 15 months behind bars.

One Kansas court, upholding the sentence, said the state could justify the harsher punishment as protecting children’s traditional development. Critics say such thinking goes against mainstream social science—and that existing Kansas law discriminates against gays and lesbians.

“It’s not a very pretty image,” said James Esseks, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Limon.

Esseks saw similarities to the evolution furor, prompted by the State Board of Education’s rewriting science testing standards in 1999. But Limon’s supporters aren’t alone.

One supporter of Kansas’ current law said criticism of the Limon ruling is the same sort of condemnation that was aimed at the Board of Education for removing most references to evolution from its standards five years ago. That condemnation helped elect new board members, who approved evolution-friendly standards in 2001.

“It is a parallel,” said Matthew Staver, whose Florida group, Liberty Counsel, helped some legislators draft a legal defense of existing Kansas law.

The Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments in Limon’s case this past week and could rule as soon as Oct. 15.

Limon committed his crime in February 2000, just after turning 18. Court records say his encounter with a boy identified only as M.A.R. was consensual, but Kansas law makes sex with someone under 16 illegal in any circumstance. Limon’s juvenile record had two similar offenses.

He and M.A.R. lived at a Paola group home for the developmentally disabled. In court, an official described M.A.R. as mildly mentally retarded and Limon as functioning at a slightly higher level but not as an 18-year-old.

Had M.A.R. been a girl, the state’s 1999 “Romeo and Juliet” law would have applied. It specifies short prison sentences or probation for sexual activity when an offender is under 19 and the age difference between participants is less than four years—but only for opposite-sex encounters.

Someone violating the “Romeo and Juliet” law does not have to register with local officials as a sex offender after leaving prison, but a person convicted of criminal sodomy does.

According to the ACLU, five other states make the distinction in “Romeo and Juliet” laws: Alabama, California, Georgia, Texas and Virginia.

When a Kansas Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 against Limon in January, Judge Henry W. Green Jr. suggested legislators might have thought the different treatment would help combat disease, promote traditional values or protect children still unsure of their identities. Green and attorneys must speculate, because the legislative record contains no details about what lawmakers were thinking.

Critics of the decision see a bias—also reflected in the law—against homosexuality.

Others, like Staver, argue the decision reflects majority views about morality, suggesting political pressure from gay rights activists has influenced research for several decades. The Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, called homosexuality “a social disorder.”

But in written arguments filed with the Supreme Court, the National Association of Social Workers said homosexuality is “a normal expression of sexuality.”

The American Psychiatric Association stopped describing homosexuality as a mental disorder in its diagnostic manuals more than 30 years ago. The APA also says orientation is not a conscious choice that can—or should—be changed through therapy.

Further, a gay or lesbian experience will not “create a homosexual,” said Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Sexual experimentation among adolescents is common, she said.

“Maybe we don’t want to deal with it, but it’s there,” said Schwartz, a past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.

Schwartz finds Limon’s sentence “cruel,” adding, “It’s frightening that kind of prejudice informs legal opinion.”

Such talk rankles Sheldon, who says people who view homosexuality as wrong or as a disorder are “demonized” regularly.

Similarly, during the evolution controversy, backers of the Board of Education’s actions complained about being demonized.

But Esseks said the common theme is how social conservatives are intent “on putting their religious beliefs ahead of science.”

And Limon’s case shows, he said, “Kansas being out of the mainstream of the country.”

  • The case is State v. Matthew R. Limon, No. 85,898.

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