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February 16, 2000 11:26pm
VA House OKs Sodomy Reform
Source: News Wire

A move to reduce sodomy from a felony to a misdemeanor squeaked through the Virginia House of Delegates 50 - 49 on February 15. The bill was passed without debate, as the House labored to meet a deadline for sending bills to the Senate. Virginia's ancient "crimes against nature" law applies to acts between consenting adults regardless of the genders of the parties involved and irrespective of whether they are committed in public or in private, although activists contend it is invoked with much greater frequency against men seeking men in public places. In theory, if not in practice, the "crime against nature" charge could even be brought against legally married couples.

The reform bill's sponsor, Delegate Karen Darner (D-Arlington), has made at least six attempts in some eight years to repeal the prohibition against oral-genital and anal-genital contact, but this year hopes to succeed with a different strategy, reducing the charge from a class-6 felony to a class-4 misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a $250 fine. She said, "Most people do not know it is a felonious crime, with a one- to five-year possible jail sentence and a $2,500 fine." Because it's a felony, those convicted "could lose their professional licenses and lose their right to vote. You might say it's rarely enforced, but I say it's selectively enforced. Let's wake up to the reality. A private act of love that occurs every day in homes across the Commonwealth" should not be a felony. Darner was particularly moved by the testimony in a committee hearing of a woman with disabilities that her entire sex life has been felonious. Darner said she had been assured by prosecu! ! ! tors that the charge would not be used more frequently if the penalty were made less harsh.

Although Darner's bill was largely supported by the minority Democrats, they were joined by enough Northern Virginia Republicans to achieve a bare majority and send the bill to the Senate. One of the Republicans was Delegate David Albo of Fairfax, who explained that although he and his colleagues "didn't want to make it legal," they wanted to correct a curious legal inequity: that sodomy by a married couple is currently a felony, while heterosexual intercourse with a prostitute is only a class-1 misdemeanor.

Those portions of the "crimes against nature" law applying to forcible sodomy, incest and bestiality will continue to carry harsher penalties.

In the midterm rush, some other bills of interest also advanced. By 58 - 39, Delegates approved a requirement for public schools to filter Internet access on their computers; although this move ostensibly "protects" children from "obscene" material, many such filters systematically prevent them from accessing non-sexual material relating to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, and sexually transmitted diseases [Ed. note: For an analysis of the effects of some popular filters, visit the GLAAD Web site]. The state will pick up the tab for the roughly 20% of Virginia public schools not already using filters.

The Virginia Senate by 24 - 15 gave the go-ahead to a measure to block state-supported legal-aid attorneys from acting on behalf of poor people in a variety of matters including legal assistance to prisoners and class-action lawsuits.

And in an unusual turnabout, Delegate John Reid (R-Henrico) has put forward a bill to impose a mandatory minimum two days in jail on adults who assault sports officials, and it advanced on its third try. "These people are being asked to do something special," Reid argued. "We are putting them in a special class." Ironicly, Republicans in particular have argued against hate crimes laws on the grounds that they "create special classes."

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