Last edited: February 14, 2005

Rhode Island Moves to End Sodomy Ban

New York Times, May 10, 1998
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By Carey Goldberg

BOSTON -- Only five people spoke on the bill, and the tally was an undramatic 49-40. But when the Rhode Island House of Representatives voted on Thursday to lift the state's ban on sodomy, it took "perhaps the biggest step in 15 years on these archaic laws," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Edith Ajello, said on Friday.

Like 20 other states, Rhode Island still has a law against sodomy -- defined as oral or anal sex, and described in the 102-year-old law as "abominable and detestable crimes against nature." Violators face a maximum prison term of 20 years.

Around the country, 24 state legislatures and five state courts have done away with their sodomy laws, acting mainly during legal overhauls in the 1970s; in the remainder, moves by civil and gay rights groups to repeal the laws arise periodically. The last successful legislative move to repeal a sodomy law still in effect occurred in Nevada in 1993, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Now, Rhode Island seems well on its way to emulating Nevada. A parallel sodomy bill appears to have equally strong support in the state senate, which is expected to vote on it soon. Supporters cite several factors at work in favor of the proposed legislation, including these:

This year, for the first time, advocates for the disabled have been arguing publicly that sodomy laws forbid what can be the only kind of sex possible for the wheelchair-bound; a Rhode Island judge ruled in a trial last month that the sodomy law, because it applies differently to married and unmarried couples, violates the state constitution's equal protection clause; and, in general, Ms. Ajello, a Democrat from Providence, said: "Times have changed. People have become more broad-minded."

But there has been outspoken opposition to the sodomy law's repeal from some conservative and Christian groups.

At a recent hearing on the law, the Rev. Richard Donnelly, pastor of St. Mark's Roman Catholic Church in Cranston, R.I., argued, "Even your ordinary dictionary calls sodomy a crime against nature."

If the repeal passes, he said, why not change the God-respecting name of Providence to Sodom? That would indicate "how far we have moved from the moral values of the Bible," he said.

John Roney, the state senator sponsoring the senate version of the bill, countered at the hearing that surveys had found that 75 percent of the population had engaged in oral sex. Even if everyone knows there are no bedroom police checking up on them, he said, there is a danger inherent in laws that everyone violates, placing themselves at the mercy of prosecutors and the police.

"We are a government of laws, not a government of men," he said. "Everyone in this room has violated this law at one point or another." (No one among about 30 people crowding the room contradicted him.)

Steve Brown of the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union similarly argued, "Laws like that simply should not be on the books because they only allow for the most arbitrary enforcement imaginable, and everybody should be concerned about giving the police that kind of power."

Repeal advocates say the authorities mainly use sodomy laws in two cases: against gay men caught having sex in places like parks or cars, and against rape suspects who say their victims consented to sex. In some states, such laws have also been used in custody and employment battles to justify discrimination against homosexuals.

The Rhode Island attorney general, Jeffrey Pine, has said he opposes outright repeal of the sodomy law, although he would be willing to amend it so that it no longer applies to acts by two consenting adults.

A spokesman for Pine, Gregg Perry, said the law's value "is that there are human victims of sexual assault which, if you were to decriminalize the statute, you wouldn't be able to charge those cases."

For example, Perry said, the sodomy law is useful in cases in which an authority figure like a religious leader uses his position, but not criminal force, to coerce a victim into having sex.

Similarly, prosecutors say, juries are sometimes uncertain about whether an alleged rape victim consented to sex. If, as an alleged rapist describes the scene of consensual sex, he admits to sodomy, that allows the jury to convict him of a lesser charge.

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