Last edited: February 14, 2005

RI Senate Passes Sodomy Repeal

NewsPlanet, Wednesday, June 3, 1998

SUMMARY: A bill decriminalizing "abominable and detestable" oral and anal sex acts, which 1 Rhode Island state senator said all of his colleagues had probably committed, is on its way to the governor.

The Rhode Island state Senate voted 26 - 17 on June 2 to repeal the state's 1896 law prohibiting the so-called "abominable and detestable crime against nature." The state House last month passed the bill state Representative Edith Ajello (D-Providence) sponsored for the seventh time. Governor Lincoln Almond (Republican) is expected to sign it, and at least has said he will not veto it. It's the first state sodomy law to be eliminated by legislative rather than judicial action in several years; in fact the Rhode Island state Supreme Court had upheld the law on two occasions in the last 15 years, although a lower court more recently said the law had unconstitutionally been selectively enforced against unmarried rather than married couples. While oral and anal sex between consenting adults are to be decriminalized, the bestiality section of the "crimes against nature" law remains intact.

Although the floor debate was relatively brief, Senator John Celona (D-North Providence) proposed an amendment to retain the ban on oral and anal sex acts if "committed while in a public area or in view of others." In fact the most common use of the sodomy statute, which provided for sentences of 7 - 20 years in prison, has been against gay men in parklands. Senate sponsor John Roney (D-Providence) pointed out the danger the amendment could pose even to a married couple in their own home who failed to close their curtains, and noted that Celona's concerns were already covered by other state laws, such as "lewd and lascivious conduct" and "disorderly conduct" charges. The amendment was defeated by 24 - 19. Roney also remarked in the course of debate that it was likely that every member of the state Senate itself had violated the law at some time.

State Senator Michael Flynn (R-Smithfield) was one of those who put forward religious arguments in defense of the sodomy statute, saying oral and anal sex violated "moral and natural law" and calling on the Senate to "uphold 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian law." But when he said that, "The presence of HIV and AIDS alone should make us wary of repealing this statute," repeal supporters noted that neighboring Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont -- none of which have sodomy laws -- all have lower rates of new HIV infections than does Rhode Island.

Repeal was applauded by the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU/RI), and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), among others. ACLU/RI executive director Steven Brown said, "I'm glad that Rhode Island, in terms of its sex laws, has finally entered the 20th Century ... just in time for the 21st." NGLTF said that when the Rhode Island bill becomes law, homosexual acts will remain criminal in 19 states -- 14 of those state laws applying to both heterosexual and homosexual couples, five of them applying exclusively to homosexual pairs (Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, where a challenge brought by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is currently in progress before the state Supreme Court). The states with gender-free sodomy laws are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia.

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