Homosexuals win challenge to state sex practices law Judge bars special rules for same-gender couples

October 17, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Lesbian and gay activists won a partial victory yesterday when a Baltimore judge ruled that it was not illegal for people of the same gender to engage in sexual activity in Maryland.

Circuit Judge Richard T. Rombro ruled that the state's anti-sodomy law violates homosexuals' constitutional rights. The law prohibits oral sex between people of the same gender but not between heterosexual partners. Lawbreakers face a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Anal sex is illegal for everyone and was not part of the case.

"It cannot be doubted, as Defendants concede, that there would be an equal protection violation if acts, considered not criminal when committed by a heterosexual couple, could be prosecuted when practiced by a homosexual couple," Rombro wrote. "One need only leave out the sexual component and test the actions in any other area of criminal law. One group may drive at 60 miles per hour, but another would be prosecuted for driving at a speed greater than 50 miles an hour."

The ruling clarifies the language of the anti-sodomy law.

Dwight Sullivan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case, hailed the ruling as a victory. "Gays and lesbians and straights will be treated the same under laws concerning intimate sexual activity," Sullivan said. "Before this ruling, the law did not treat gays and lesbians the same."

Though the plaintiffs conceded that criminal laws are rarely enforced against people engaging in consensual sex behind closed doors, they say the anti-sodomy law has other ramifications. The law is used as ammunition in child custody cases and as the basis for job discrimination.

Catherine M. Brennan, a Baltimore attorney and one of the plaintiffs, said she was pleased with the ruling. "The judge did what jurisdictions are doing across the country, which is decriminalizing the lives of gays and lesbians," she said. "I think the judge did what was both intellectually honest and morally correct."

The plaintiffs, however, lost a bid to have the state's solicitation statute declared unconstitutional. They say that statute has led to police sting operations against homosexuals.

Sullivan said he is considering appealing that part of the decision.

The Maryland suit, filed in February, named as plaintiffs Brennan; Bruce Williams, a city councilman in Takoma Park; his partner, Geoffrey Burkhart, an anthropology professor at American tTC University; Lawrence S. Jacobs, a corporate attorney and civic activist in Rockville; "John Doe," a federal employee who was arrested in Anne Arundel County; and Paula J. Peters, an Annapolis taxpayer who objects to government money being spent on enforcing anti-sodomy policies.

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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