BALTIMORE--In a legal and political triumph for lesbians and gay men, a Maryland court has voided a decades-old law criminalizing same-partner oral sex.
The surprise ruling came virtually at the outset of a class-action lawsuit filed in February by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.
"In battles over civil rights, same-sex marriage, and hate crimes, our opponents have invoked laws like Maryland's to say we are not entitled to equal treatment," said Matthew Coles, Director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "They can no longer justify opposition to lesbian and gay rights by saying that we are criminals once these laws are struck from the books."
In a decision issued late Friday, Circuit Court Judge Richard T. Rombro held that the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution would be violated "if acts, considered not criminal when committed by a heterosexual couple, could be prosecuted when practiced by a homosexual couple." Rombro then interpreted the statute not to apply to any form of private, consensual, non-commercial sex.
The law, which dated back to 1916, made it a felony for lesbians and gay men to engage in oral sex and attached penalties of up to $1,000 or 10 years in prison.
"This case was about securing basic civil liberties," said Michael Adams, lead lawyer in the case for the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "Laws criminalizing sexual intimacy have left lesbians and gay men vulnerable to job discrimination and open to unfair attacks in child custody cases."
The ACLU brought the case on behalf of five men and women who represent a broad class of Maryland individuals who are negatively impacted by the state's law. Based on today's ruling, the ACLU will now seek to certify the case as a class-action suit on behalf of all Maryland residents.
"After today, everybody will be treated the same under laws concerning intimate sexual activity in our state, " said Dwight Sullivan, lead attorney in the case for the ACLU of Maryland. "For the gay and lesbian people of Maryland, a dark cloud has been lifted."
Laws criminalizing sexual intimacy, including sodomy, were once on the books in all 50 states, but many have been repealed or struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Most recently, the Montana Supreme Court voided its same-sex sodomy law last July, concluding that the government has no place in the private bedrooms of consenting adults.
Sodomy and oral sex laws remain on the books today in 20 states, 15 of which target intimate activities for both gay and heterosexual couples.
An updated list of state sodomy statutes can be found on the ACLU's web page at http://www.aclu.org/issues/gay/sodomy.html