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February 24, 2000 09:00am
Senate panel kills cutting penalties for sex-law violations
Source: The Virginian-Pilot
by: Jennifer Peter

(RICHMOND, VA) -- Virginians who engage in certain sexual activities will remain at risk of going to jail and losing their voting rights after a Senate panel's refusal Wednesday to change the state's ``crimes against nature'' law.

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 9-5 to defeat the changes, which made it through the House of Delegates this year for the first time in history.

The 200-year-old law makes it a felony for consenting adults -- even married couples -- to engage in oral sex or sodomy. Several other states have repealed similar laws.

Del. L. Karen Darner, D-Arlington, has proposed repealing the law for eight years, arguing that the state cannot police citizens' bedrooms and that the law fails to reflect the reality of modern life in Virginia.

This year, under a new Republican majority, Darner changed her tactic. She proposed instead to reduce the crime to a class 4 misdemeanor -- lowering the maximum fine from $2,500 to $250, eliminating the possibility of a jail sentence, and allowing those convicted to retain their voting rights.

This was enough to win the support of the House Courts of Justice Committee, which previously had defeated the bill with a few smirks and no debate every year. The full House approved the bill 50-49 last week.

The bill's demise marks the Senate's first response to a package of controversial measures sponsored by Democrats that were approved by the Republican-controlled House earlier this month.

The Senate has yet to render a verdict on a proposal to extend from three weeks to three years the amount of time death-row inmates have to present new evidence of their innocence to the courts. Also pending are proposals to make it easier for ex-felons to regain their voting rights.

Speaking in favor of changing the ``crimes against nature'' bill Wednesday -- and also at previous hearings -- was 23-year-old Loree Erickson of Richmond, who has used a wheelchair since she was 5. Because of her disability, she told the committee, the only way she can experience intimacy is through committing a felony.

``It's now considered a felony for me to express intimacy with the person I love the only way I can,'' Erickson told the committee. After the vote, she added: ``I think it's ridiculous to criminalize the way someone expresses intimacy with another person.''

The crime is rarely prosecuted, but opponents argue that the law has been used to selectively target gay men or to cast doubt on a woman's fitness to retain custody of her children.

Speaking against the bill was The Family Foundation and the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists.

``This is a time for strengthening the moral fiber of the commonwealth,'' said Jack Knapp, executive director of the Baptist group. ``Reducing the penalty won't do that.''

The local members of the committee -- Republican Sens. J. Randy Forbes and Frederick M. Quayle of Chesapeake; D. Nick Rerras of Norfolk; and Kenneth W. Stolle of Virginia Beach -- opposed the changes.

Darner pledged to try again next year.

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