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Puerto Rico's Sodomy Law Called a Danger to Citizens

'Crime Against Nature' Brings Up to Ten Years in Jail

ACLU Opens New Front in a Battle Against Court Bias

Compiled By GayToday

San Juan, Puerto Rico--Opening a new front in its battle against one of the country's starkest examples of the dangers of discriminatory sodomy laws, the American Civil Liberties Union asked an appellate court yesterday to reconsider its ruling dismissing a massive legal challenge to Puerto Rico's anti-gay "crime against nature" law.
Cathedral of our Lady of Guadalupe in Puerto Rico

ACLU attorneys also said they would "take whatever steps necessary" to eliminate the law, vowing to appeal the case to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court if the lower court does not reverse itself.

"From time to time, we see deeply misguided decisions like this. In this particular case, the court's decision isn't just conservative interpretation of the law - it's legally inaccurate and incorrect," said Michael Adams, Associate Director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and the lead attorney in the case.

"We will take whatever steps necessary to repeal this law, but first we want to give the appellate court another chance to look at it."

In a split decision, the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals dismissed the ACLU's challenge to the sodomy law, saying no citizens could show that they are directly impacted by it. The 2-1 majority decision also said citizens' constitutional rights are not jeopardized by Puerto Rico's sodomy law.

"Many of us were particularly baffled by the notion that Puerto Rico's sodomy law does not directly affect our people," said Janice Gutierez Lacourt, Executive Director of the ACLU of Puerto Rico. "In fact, this law is a clear danger to every lesbian and gay man in Puerto Rico."

Last year, another Puerto Rico appellate court made that clear in a seemingly unrelated case, Adams said. In a domestic violence case involving a gay male couple, the court ruled that Puerto Rico's law on domestic violence did not apply to lesbians and gay men, since the sodomy statute "makes homosexual conduct a crime."

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In another example cited by the ACLU, the sodomy statute was used to threaten Rev. Margarita Sanchez while she was testifying about an anti-gay bill before the Puerto Rico legislature.

That threat was followed by an announcement from the Puerto Rico Department of Justice that officials intended to enforce the sodomy law if police brought them evidence of violations. Rev. Sanchez is now the lead plaintiff in the ACLU's challenge to Puerto Rico's sodomy law.

Puerto Rico's sodomy law illustrates the potential danger of other such laws nationwide, Adams said. "Many people - gay and straight - have this idea that sodomy laws are just really old legal codes that exist in name only. In fact, we regularly work with people who have been arrested or threatened with arrest, as well as people who have lost their jobs and their children because they are technically felons in states with sodomy laws," Adams said.

In addition to Puerto Rico, 18 states have sodomy laws. The specific natures of the laws vary, as do punishments. Under Puerto Rico's law, private, consensual sexual intercourse between people of the same sex--as well as private, consensual anal sex, regardless of whether it is homosexual or heterosexual--is a felony, punishable by up to $1,000 or 10 years in prison.

The ACLU lawsuit was filed in 1998 on behalf of Rev. Sanchez and five other lesbian and gay Puerto Ricans. The ACLU also appeared as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, on behalf of its grassroots members in Puerto Rico who are lesbian, gay and straight.

Puerto Rico's sodomy law violates the commonwealth and federal constitutions by criminalizing private, consensual, non-commercial intimacy between adults, the ACLU lawsuit contends. This ACLU argument has proven successful in court challenges to sodomy laws in several states in recent years, including those in Maryland, Georgia, Montana, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Last month, the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project urged the Louisiana Supreme Court to overturn that state's sodomy law. A decision in that case (Smith v. Louisiana) is expected soon. This summer, the ACLU will file a lawsuit seeking to overturn Minnesota's sodomy law, which criminalizes private, consensual, non-commercial intimacy for heterosexual and gay adults.

In-depth information on the history of sodomy laws - and on current laws in each state - is available on the ACLU's web site,
The Puerto Rico case is Sanchez, et al. v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In addition to Adams, Charles Hey Maestre and Nora Vargas Acosta, both of San Juan, are attorneys in the case.

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