Last edited: February 14, 2005

State Senate repeals 1896 sodomy law

A bill to repeal the 102-year-old statute was passed by the House last month and is now awaiting Governor Almond's signature.

The Providence Journal-Bulletin, June 3, 1998
75 Fountain St.
Providence, RI 02902
Fax 401-277-7346

By Jonathan Saltzman
Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- Kate Monteiro was a teenager when she began her fight to repeal Rhode Island's 19th-century sodomy law, which makes it a felony for consenting adults to engage in oral or anal sex.

As a member of the state's model legislature in 1979, the Burrillville High School student argued that the law was an anachronism that should be stricken from the books. Through the years, bills have been introduced in the General Assembly to do that, but they never got anywhere.

Yesterday was different. After a brief debate, the Senate passed a bill to repeal the 102-year-old law that calls for a prison sentence of 7 to 20 years for anyone engaging in oral or anal sex, defined by law as "an abominable and detestable crime against nature.''

Monteiro, now the president of the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, embraced beaming activists outside the Senate chamber after the 26-to-17 vote.

'I'm proud to be a born-and-bred Rhode Islander,'' she said, "and proud that the State of Rhode Island has said, 'What is personal is personal, and what is private is private.' ''

The House passed the legislation last month. Rep. Edith Ajello, D- Providence, who sponsored the legislation six times before she was successful, said she was optimistic Governor Almond will sign it.

Since the early 1960s, at least two dozen states have repealed similar sodomy laws, according to statistics supplied by Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. And five other states have had their laws struck down by the courts.

In Rhode Island, supporters of a repeal argued that the 1896 "crime against nature'' law was archaic and unfair. More often than not, they said, it was used by police departments to harass homosexual men.

Sen. John Roney, D-Providence, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said he doubted that "a single person in this chamber has not, at some point in his lifetime, broken this law.''

Three of the state's newspapers have editorialized in favor of repeal. And three Superior Court judges have criticized the law. Just recently, one of the judges, Frank J. Williams, said the law violates the equal-protection clause of the state Constitution because it's typically applied to unmarried couples, not married ones.

As in the House, opponents sought to water down the bill or kill it outright, citing fears of burgeoning public sex and invoking religious beliefs.

Sen. John A. Celona, D-North Providence, acknowledged that some handicapped people rely on the proscribed acts as their only source of sexual gratification. But he feared that a blanket repeal might encourage others to have oral or anal sex in public, perhaps in view of minors.

As a compromise, he suggested the legislation be amended to prohibit oral and anal sex if "committed while in a public area or in view of others.''

Roney spoke against the amendment, saying it was worded so broadly that a couple could be arrested for engaging in oral or anal sex in their bedroom if the shade was up.

The state already has other laws, including bans on lewd and lascivious conduct and disorderly conduct, to prevent public sex, he added.

The amendment failed by a vote of 24 to 19.

Sen. Michael J. Flynn, R-Smithfield, implored his colleagues to "uphold 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian law'' and to keep the sodomy ban. He said he believed oral and anal sex were wrong under "moral law and natural law,'' and he exhorted the Senate not to be stampeded by editorial writers and judges.

"The presence of HIV and AIDS alone should make us wary of repealing this statute,'' Flynn said.

But proponents of a repeal said the issue of sexually transmitted diseases and the sodomy law were unrelated. Indeed, three New England states without sodomy laws -- New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine -- have a lower rate of HIV transmission than Rhode Island, according to statistics supplied by Rhode Island Project AIDS.

Supporters also said that people who contract the AIDS virus through the proscribed acts might actually be less likely to seek medical treatment out of fear, warranted or not, that they could be charged with breaking the sodomy law.

Although gay-rights activists were among the most vocal supporters of the bill, Monteiro said after the vote that all couples, heterosexual or homosexual, should be pleased by the outcome.

"It's always been the same issue: government doesn't belong in anyone's bedroom,'' she said.

Brown, of the ACLU, said the repeal was "long overdue.''

"I'm glad that Rhode Island, in terms of its sex laws, has finally entered the 20th century,'' he said, "just in time for the 21st.''

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