Last edited: February 14, 2005

Minnesota Sodomy Law Struck Down Newscenter, May 22, 2001

By Jan Prout

Minneapolis — A state court has voided Minnesota’s law prohibiting oral and anal sex, but there are indications Governor Jesse Ventura’s administration may step in and attempt to limit the ruling to the individual plaintiffs in the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union vowed to defend the ruling’s statewide impact if that happens.

"This is a tremendous victory — because of what sodomy laws do, but also because of what they say," said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights Project, which along with the ACLU’s Minnesota state affiliate last summer filed Doe, et al. v. Jesse Ventura, et al., a lawsuit challenging the sodomy statute. "A society’s laws are its core statement of right and wrong. Sodomy laws, because they are understood to primarily apply to lesbians and gay men, marginalize gay people and their pursuit of equal citizenship."

State District Court Judge Delila F. Pierce struck the law down, saying that the court "declares [the sodomy statute] to be unconstitutional, as applied to private, consensual, non-commercial acts of sodomy by consenting adults, because it violates the right of privacy guaranteed by the Minnesota Constitution."

Minnesota’s sodomy law, which has been on the books since the 1800s, prohibits both oral and anal sex between any adults. Penalties include up to a year in jail and up to $3,000 in fines. In recent years, the law has been directly enforced and also has been indirectly used to deny opportunities, especially to lesbians and gay men in employment, child custody and other areas. For years, efforts to repeal the law in the state legislature were unsuccessful. Right-wing groups unsuccessfully tried to alter the law in recent years, so it would not apply to married, straight couples.

Pierce’s decision striking down the sodomy law noted that the plaintiffs in the case "represent a cross section of Minnesotans impacted by the sodomy statute." The ruling should prevent the law from being enforced or invoked anywhere in Minnesota, according to Leslie Cooper, the ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights Project staff attorney handling the case.

But the ACLU is asking the court to technically certify the case as a class-action, which Cooper said will leave "absolutely no question" that the sodomy law cannot be enforced directly or indirectly. At the end of May, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura’s administration may file legal papers opposing this, and a hearing would be held June 7.

"It’s unfathomable that the Ventura Administration would want the court to limit this ruling," Cooper said. "The sodomy law has been declared unconstitutional — and the state has no good reason to say that it should be unconstitutional for some people, but not everyone."

The ACLU’s clients in the case are state citizens whose jobs, homes and relationships with their children were threatened by the sodomy law, including, a quadriplegic married man who lives in Minneapolis, identified for privacy reasons only as "John Doe." Because of his disability, the only forms of intimacy he is capable of engaging in with his wife were among those criminalized under the sodomy statute.

Other clients is a lesbian attorney in Minneapolis, who rents a townhouse. Identified as "Jane Doe" in the lawsuit, she could have faced eviction from her home because her lease prohibits illegal activity, and gay law student in Minneapolis, Phil Duran, who lives in an apartment with a similar lease. Duran took the state bar exam recently - a test that could have been moot because individuals who violate state law, including the sodomy statute, can be disbarred.

The ACLU also noted the 1997 arrest and prosecution of a Beltrami County man who engaged in consensual oral sex with a woman. The sodomy law also was used for years to help prevent passage of a state law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. That law was finally enacted in 1993.

The ruling in Doe, et al. v. Ventura, et al. comes on the heels of several recent developments affecting similar laws nationwide. Earlier this month, Arizona Governor Jane Hull signed a law repealing that state’s sodomy statute. In March, a state court in Arkansas found its sodomy law unconstitutional. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court is currently weighing the ACLU’s challenge to that sodomy law. But a Texas Court of Appeals upheld that state’s sodomy law last month, in a decision now being appealed.

Excluding Arizona, Arkansas and Minnesota, 15 states have laws prohibiting oral and anal sex between consenting adults, some of which only apply to same-sex intimacy — but all of which are used disproportionately against lesbians and gay men.

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