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Maryland Clears Last of its Sodomy Laws

BALTIMORE--In the first deal of its kind, state officials agreed to a court order that will clear the last of Maryland's outmoded sodomy laws from its books, the American Civil Liberties Union announced January 19.

The agreement, signed by Circuit Judge Richard T. Rombro, was finalized three months after the court voided a law criminalizing same-gender oral sex in a challenge brought by the ACLU.

Under today's agreement, the state will give up another law which made it a crime for anyone -- gay or straight -- to engage in anal sex, under penalties of up to $1,000 or 10 years in prison. The state also will not appeal the court's ruling on the oral sex law, which targeted only lesbians and gay men. In return, the ACLU agreed to drop its remaining legal claims.

"This is the first time a state has voluntarily given up any part of a sodomy law," said Michael Adams, lead attorney in the case for the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, which together with the ACLU of Maryland brokered the deal. "The Court had already crippled these laws in its earlier ruling and now it has finally put them to out to pasture."

"Today's settlement brings us one step closer to the day when the government will no longer have the right to police anyone's bedrooms anywhere in the United States," he added. "And that day is surely coming."

In battles over civil rights, same-sex marriage, and gay adoption, anti-gay opponents have invoked laws like Maryland's to justify opposition to lesbian and gay rights. Laws criminalizing sexual intimacy have left lesbians and gay men vulnerable to job discrimination and open to unfair attacks in child custody cases.

Attorney Lawrence S. Jacobs of Rockville, one of five plaintiffs in the ACLU case, said conservative groups seized on the sodomy issue three years ago when he led a coalition urging the local school board to add sexual orientation protection to its non-discrimination policy.

"You try to raise a serious issue like discrimination against gay and lesbian students and they come back at you with Œsodomy is illegal and you're a criminal,'" he said. "But after today, I'm a little more inclined to think that Maryland's motto, Œthe free state,' might actually be true."

Dwight Sullivan, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland said that today's settlement considerably brightens the outlook for gay and lesbian civil rights in the state.

"With a recent favorable court decision on visitation rights for gay parents, and a proposal to expand employment and housing discrimination laws to include sexual orientation, 1999 is shaping up to be a good year for the gay and lesbian people of Maryland," he said.

Sullivan noted that the agreement and court order also represent a privacy victory for heterosexuals, who until today committed a felony if the engaged in anal sex in Maryland.

"While gays and lesbians are most often the targets of government policing of our bedrooms, they are not the only victims of these laws," he said. "We are proud to have made Maryland a safe place for all who engage in intimate sexual activity in private."

Today's action comes less than two months after a high court in Georgia voided that state's 182-year-old sodomy law. The law invalidated by the court in Georgia is the same law that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in a famous 1986 case, Bowers v. Hardwick, saying it did not violate the federal right to privacy.

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. Sodomy and oral sex laws remain on the books today in 18 states and Puerto Rico; 13 of these laws target intimate activities for both gay and heterosexual couples.

The ACLU also challenged the state's solicitation law when it applies to private, consensual sex acts not involving prostitution. The claim was rejected by the court, but the ACLU said it will consider litigation should a case of discriminatory arrest under the law arise.

Founded in 1920, the American Civil Liberties is a national, non-partisan organization dedicated to preserving and defending the principles set forth in the Bill of Rights. Through its Lesbian & Gay Rights Project and 53 state affiliates, the ACLU works on more lesbian and gay related litigation and legislation than any other organization in the country.

(Note: 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.)


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