C Rulon: Christianity, Sodomy Laws & the Consenting Adults Act

By | October 15, 2011

By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College

Christianity developed as a sex-negative religion

To quote from a once popular college human sexuality text (Luria and Rose, Human Sexuality) “Early Christianity was guided by an ascetic doctrine that was followed in preparation for the second coming of Christ. This doctrine believed in a strict self-denial of bodily pleasures. Everything sexual was considered base and rooted in lowly bodily strivings that detracted from spiritual pursuits. . . All forms of sexual behavior other than for procreation within marriage were banned. Even thinking about fornication or having a wet dream was considered a sin that required penance.”

Church law exerted a strong influence over the development of English law. In 1533 Henry VIII made sodomy (unnatural sex acts such as anal intercourse and bestiality) crimes. American settlers brought with them many of these English laws. California made anal sex a crime in1872 and oral sex in 1915.

The Consenting Adults Act

The Napoleonic Code (adopted in France in 1810) contained no criminal laws relating to oral or anal sex between consenting adults in private. Spain, Portugal and Italy later followed suit. In the twentieth century, Denmark legalized consensual adult sex in 1930, Switzerland in 1937 and Sweden in 1944. But in the United States oral sex, anal sex, cohabitating, fornicating, and homosexual acts between consenting adults in private remained illegal. Some of these acts even carried heavy prison sentences in numerous states.

Finally in 1962, Illinois became the first state to revise its criminal code regarding sexual acts between consenting adults in private. The Illinois Bar Association wrote that the only purpose of laws concerning sexual conduct should be to:

a) protect the individual from force and coercion,
b) protect the youth against adults who would take sexual advantage of them, and
c) protect the public from displays of sexual activity that may be disruptive of the peace.

They also stated that the purpose of laws should not be to determine and enforce standards of morality. Such morality laws, they wrote:

a) infringed on the right to privacy,
b) inflicted cruel and unusual punishment,
c) encouraged disrespect for the law in general, and
d) conflicted with our constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state.

Furthermore, the Illinois Bar Association noted that no harm to society could be shown to result from what consenting adults in private chose to do sexually.

Fourteen years later in 1976, by only one vote, the Consenting Adults Act became law in California. So from 1976 on, adult couples in California could legally cohabitate and could engage in oral sex, anal sex, fornication, group sex, adultery, and same sex activity in private with no fear of being arrested. (Still, the California Penal Code [Section 288a] read that “Any person who has oral sex with another person under age 18 could, if convicted, spend up to a year in jail.”)

In 1981 the city council of Washington D.C. followed California’s example and passed its Consenting Adult’s Act. But the U.S. House of Representatives, reacting to pres¬sure from the Christian Right, overturned it. This was the first time in history that Congress overturned a law passed by a city council that did not clearly tread on federal prerogatives.

In 1986, by a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the sodomy laws that still existed in half our states. The Court’s majority opinion cited “ancient roots” as its justification. In other words, the condemnation of sodomy had roots in English common law reaching back to King Henry VIII and in the fact that all 13 colonies outlawed sodomy, as had all states until 1962. The four dissenting justices strongly disagreed. Justice Blackmun offered a strongly worded plea for expanding the zone of privacy to include human sexuality in all its forms, traditional or not, approved by society or not, as long as the parties involved were consenting adults. It also did not escape notice that our former laws forbidding interracial marriages and permitting slavery also had ancient roots.

By 1986, 24 states still had laws against oral and anal sex, referred to as “crimes against nature”. The following states actually imposed jail sentences of from 5-20 years for sodomy, whether straight or gay, married or not: Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Thus, to admit that one was gay or lesbian in these states was, in essence, to admit to a felony! Furthermore, any member of Congress who attempted to overthrow these sodomy laws was accused of promoting free love, incest, promiscuity, homosexuality, collapse of the family, and moral decay.

In the 1990s, a few state supreme courts and legislatures finally began to disavow their old sodomy laws. The right to sexual privacy appeared to be slowly winning. But it wasn’t until 2003 in Lawrence v Texas that the U.S. Supreme Court by a vote of 6-3 finally held that these sodomy laws were unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, the Christian Right remains adamant that all homosexual acts are grave sins against God. They point to selected biblical passages for proof. They point to AIDS, which some still believe is God’s punishment for engaging in this “perverted lifestyle.” In 1986 Pope John Paul II, the spiritual head of one billion Catholics, issued an official paper on sexual ethics that called homosexual behavior a “moral evil.” He urged Catholic bishops to oppose all legislative efforts to condone homosexuality. As of 2011 this position hadn’t changed. Also, homosexual acts between adults in private are still illegal in about 70 countries.

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