Last edited: February 14, 2005

North Carolina Panel Hears Sodomy Reform

Newsplanet, May 12, 1999

The testimony in favor of repealing the 200-yr old sex law was strong, but the point is moot in North Carolina - at least for now.

North Carolina’s Senate Judiciary II Committee on May 11 heard testimony on state Representative Ellie Kinnaird’s (D-Orange) proposal to decriminalize private non-commercial oral and anal sex acts between consenting adults. It’s already too late for action on the measure during the remainder of the state’s current two-year legislative session, since a deadline for non-budget bills to move from one chamber to the other passed two weeks ago; the state House’s rejection last month of a bill to add sexual orientation to the existing hate crimes law convinced supporters there was no hope now for reform of the 200-year-old "crimes against nature" statute. But Committee chair Senator Brad Miller (D-Wake) felt the measure deserved a hearing, although several Senators on the Committee walked out. Among those testifying in support of the measure was Methodist minister Jimmy Creech, who recently celebrated the union of a gay male couple in North Carolina despite having barely been acquitted by a church court last year for blessing a lesbian couple in Nebraska.

Violation of North Carolina’s "crimes against nature" law is a felony punishable by up to ten months in jail. The law applies even to married heterosexual couples, leading the American Civil Liberties Union’s Deborah Ross to remark that, "More than half of North Carolina’s adult population are felons. Many who are not felons wish that they were." One prosecutor said police primarily use the charge against those having sex in public places, although misdemeanor solicitation is used more commonly even then; prosecutors sometimes use sodomy as an additional charge in sexual assault cases. There were roughly 50 convictions under the law in 1998.

However, it’s less arrest and prosecution than the existence of the law which is damaging to lesbians and gays. Kinnaird called it "an antiquated statute used to discriminate ... against gay people." Creech said, "This law was designed from the beginning to deny full civil rights to gay and lesbian persons," and compared the statute to the "Jim Crow" laws that enforced racial segregation. Attorney and former legislator Sharon Thompson described how gay and lesbian parents were denied custody of their children because of the law, and added, "My clients are not worried about getting arrested in a public park. They don’t do that. They go to PTA meetings."

Speaking in defense of the existing law, North Carolina Family Policy Council head Bill Brooks compared it to seatbelt requirements, as a measure designed to protect people. He said, "The human body is not designed for homosexual acts. It’s harmful to their bodies. I think it’s the business of the government to hold up a standard and to protect people from behavior that is harmful to themselves and society. It harms society because it harms them. They are a part of society."

Reform supporters put a higher value on privacy, however. Libertarian Party state chair Sean Haugh said, "What people do in the privacy of their homes is of absolutely no interest to the General Assembly." Kinnaird said, "The point is that government has no business in our bedroom. I don’t want to know what anybody else does and I assume that nobody else does." Committee member Senator Frank Ballance (D-Warren) compared the reform proposal to the military’s so-called "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.

The two sides also differed as to the validity of the existing law. John Rustin, also with the North Carolina Family Policy Council, said, "The courts have consistently held that this is a criminal offense, a felony. The law goes back to English law, over 200 years."

But Kinnaird said, "This law cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny," noting that similar laws have been struck down by the courts in several other states. Attorney John Boddie, who said he’s represented at least 100 people charged under the law, said the only ones to actually be convicted were those who chose to plead guilty rather than face the embarrassment of a trial. He called it "one of the silliest laws on the books in North Carolina."

The Committee did not vote on the bill. The most that could happen at this time would be its referral to a study commission. Repeated attempts to reform North Carolina’s law have failed since 1993, although Kinnaird said that similar laws have been repealed in 32 other states. Supporters of reform like Equality North Carolina understand that they’re in it "for the long haul," although perhaps not for "another generation," as Miller suggested. Meanwhile, Kinnaird said that reform opponents have "burned up" her e-mail with their protests of her even introducing her bill.

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