Last edited: November 23, 2003

Puerto Rico's Criminal Ban on Same-Gender Sex, "Crime Against Nature" Targeted by ACLU Lawsuit

American Civil Liberties Union, June 22, 1998

SAN JUAN -- The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit challenging as unconstitutional a Puerto Rico law that criminalizes gay and lesbian intimate relationships and "the crime against nature," which apparently targets heterosexual sodomy.

The suit -- filed this morning in San Juan Superior Court by the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project on behalf of six residents -- targets Puerto Rico's "crime against nature" statute. Under the law, anyone who "has sexual intercourse with people of the same sex or commits the crime against nature with a human being" is guilty of a felony and liable for penalties of up to $1,000 or 10 years in prison.

"The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has no business in my bedroom," said Margarita Sanchez De Leon, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "Our Constitution gives me the right to decide whether I love a woman or a man, and how I will love my partner."

Sanchez De Leon added that she considered the ACLU's lawsuit a "big step forward" for the lesbian and gay community in Puerto Rico.

The ACLU's complaint charges that the law violates the equal protection and privacy rights of lesbians and gay men guaranteed by both the Puerto Rico and United States Constitutions. The ACLU also said the law is unconstitutionally vague because it does not make clear what acts the statute prohibits and to whom the prohibitions apply.

Although sodomy laws are not always enforced, such laws are often used to deny lesbians and gay men a range of other rights, said Michael Adams, a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

"This case is about securing basic civil liberties," Adams said. "Laws criminalizing sexual intimacy have been used in workplaces to deny lesbians and gay men jobs. They have been used to take children away from parents who are gay. In Puerto Rico, they have even been used by politicians to threaten gay citizens who speak out for their rights."

Adams said Sanchez De Leon was asked whether she was a lesbian when attempting to testify before members of Puerto Rico's legislature. When Sanchez De Leon, a Christian minister and activist, answered "yes," she was told she could be arrested.

The lawsuit charges that Puerto Rico's sodomy law was used to deny Sanchez De Leon her constitutionally protected free speech rights and that she and her life partner, who is identified in court papers as Jane Doe, now fear arrest and prosecution under Article 103 of the Penal Code of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

While the other plaintiffs have never been accused of violating the law, as gay men in intimate relationships they live under the dark cloud of a legal threat. Plaintiff Jose Joaquin Mulinelli of Bayamon and his life partner John Doe both said they had suffered psychological harm as a result of being singled out under the law. Mulinelli is an HIV health educator and John Doe is a nurse.

Similarly, Edgard Danielsen Morales and his life partner William Moran Berberena, both of San Juan, cited fear of arrest and other severe consequences under the Puerto Rico statute. Morales is a chemistry professor and the associate dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Puerto Rico; Moran Berberena is a federal employee.

The ACLU also brought the case on behalf of its members who live in and travel to Puerto Rico and could be prosecuted under Article 103. Concerned about social ostracism and retaliation if their identities are revealed, two of the plaintiffs, "John Doe" and "Jane Doe," asked to remain anonymous in the lawsuit. Taken together, these six people and ACLU members represent a broad spectrum of individuals who are negatively impacted by the Puerto Rico's law.

Laws criminalizing sexual intimacy, including sodomy, were once on the books in all 50 states, but many have been repealed or struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Most recently, Rhode Island and Montana voided their same-sex sodomy laws, concluding that the government has no place in the private bedrooms of consenting adults.

Sodomy and oral sex laws remain today in twenty-one states, 15 of which target intimate activities for both gay and heterosexual couples. The remaining six states have laws that only target lesbians and gay men. Same-sex laws in Kansas and Maryland are currently being challenged by the ACLU.

The case is Sanchez et al. v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Attorneys in the case are Michael Adams; Matthew Coles, Director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, and Charles Hey Maestre of San Juan. Attorney Ana Irma Rivera Larsen is also assisting in the case.

For more information:

The ACLU's Complaint in the case is at:

An ACLU fact sheet on sodomy laws in the United States is at:

An overview of the ACLU's work on lesbian and gay rights is at:

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