Last edited: February 06, 2005

House Votes to Repeal Law Against Sex Acts

The vote was 49 to 40 to repeal the 1896 law that makes illegal certain sex acts between consenting adults.

Providence Journal-Bulletin, May 8, 1998
75 Fountain Street, Providence, RI 02902
Fax 401-277-7346

By Scott MacKay
Journal-Bulletin State House Bureau

PROVIDENCEAfter a spirited debate that touched on religion, gay rights and privacy rights, the House yesterday voted to repeal Rhode Island's 102-year-old law that makes it a crime for consenting adultseven married couplesto engage in oral or anal sex.

The vote was 49 to 40 on the legislation sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence. The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration.

At issue was the state's 1896 law that calls for a prison sentence of at last seven yearsand, potentially, up to 20 yearsfor anyone found guilty of engaging in oral or anal sex, defined by the law as "an abominable and detestable crime against nature.''

Arguing for the bill, Ajello said it is too often used in rounding up men engaged in homosexual sex. "When an arrest is made, a story written, lives are hurt.''

The law is an anachronism, Ajello said, that is selectively enforced, a relic of "the Victorian era.''

And Ajello invoked noted American jurists Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis. On behalf of privacy, Brandeis said famously that "the right most valued by civilized men is the right to be left alone.''

Quoting Holmes, Ajello said: "It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds on which it was laid have vanished long since and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.''

Opposing repeal was Rep. Harold Metts, D-Providence, who cited the Bible and Christian religious principles.

Metts said that repealing the law would amount to a "compromise with the devil . . . When we sin we become abominable and detestable.''

Repealing the law would be tantamount to state sanction of homosexual sex acts, Metts said.

Metts said he came to his position after reading the Bible, fasting and praying. Societies that allow such sexual practices wither from within, Metts said, their civic culture fractured by godlessness and "moral and civil decline.''

Metts said he was upset by public displays of sex acts in parks, but Ajello countered that other lawssuch as lewd and lascivious conduct and disorderly conductalready on the books can be used to deter public sex.

Over the years the state Supreme Court has upheld the "abominable and detestable'' law, even as courts in other states threw out similar statutes.

But in the recent Block Island rape trial, sodomy charges against Edward F. McGovernwho was eventually acquitted of all chargeswere dismissed by Superior Court Judge Frank J. Williams.

Judge Williams ruled that the state's sodomy law violates the equal-protection clause of the state Constitution because it treats married and unmarried couples differently.

Arguing for repeal, Rep. Denise Aiken-Salandria, D-Warwick, said that the only way that some handicapped and wheelchair-bound Rhode Islanders can experience sexual pleasure is through practices that are proscribed by the sodomy law.

The state attorney general's office too often charges a defendant with a violation of the state's sodomy laws when it does not have sufficient evidence to make a tougher charge, such as sexual assault, stick in court, said Rep. David Cicilline, D-Providence, a criminal defense lawyer.

"If the attorney general . . . does not have sufficient evidence to bring charges they ought not to be brought,'' Cicilline said.

Judith Ryder, of Scituate, president of the Eagle Forum of Rhode Island, who testified against the bill in the House Judiciary Committee, said yesterday she will lobby against the bill in the Senate.

"I wasn't very pleased at what they did today,'' said Ryder, whose organization promotes "traditional'' values.

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