Just as Charlottesville's Live Arts theatre company completed a run of Steve Martin's play, The Underpants, whose farcical plot is set off by the inadvertant sight of a woman's bloomers by onlookers at a royal parade, the oldest legislative body in North America has passed a law that would ensure that Martin's hapless heroine would be fined $50 for her embarrassment.
Drawing national (AP, Chicago Sun-Times, ABC News, Neal Boortz) and international (The Scotsman, BBC News, Der Spiegel) attention -- and ridicule, it goes without saying -- the Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill, HB 1981, patroned by Norfolk Democrat Algie Howell, which states:
Any person who, while in a public place, intentionally wears and displays his below-waist undergarments, intended to cover a person's intimate parts, in a lewd or indecent manner, shall be subject to a civil penalty of no more than$50.
The bill is designed to inhibit, if not prohibit, the wearing of "low-riding" jeans and the above-waistband display of boxers and thongs -- a popular fashion trend among young people, in particular young African-Americans. (Delegate Howell himself is African-American.)
Not having more important things to do -- such as ending intrusive business regulations or cutting taxes for Virginia's workers -- the House voted 60 to 34 to send this bill to the state Senate.
Delegate Lionel Spruill, also a black Democrat, opposed the bill, reminding his colleagues, to no avail, that youthful fashion trends come and go. He asked if any members of the House can look at their high school yearbook pictures without laughing -- or cringing. As reported in the Washington Times:
Mr. Spruill conducted an informal survey of his colleagues, asking about their youthful fashion fads and faux pas. The responses, he said, ranged from Afros to platform shoes to polyester leisure suits.
"Please, let these kids express themselves," he said. "It will pass on. Don't fine these young kids. You had your time, let them have their time."
On a more serious note, Spruill argued:
"This is a foolish bill because it will hurt so many," said Mr. Spruill, who is black.
"This will be a bill that will target blacks."
At one point, Mr. Spruill suggested that lawmakers who vote for the bill "should be ashamed" and said Mr. Howell has let his constituents down.
His view was echoed by civil libertarians. The Times again:
However, Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said the bill "clearly targets" black men.
"African-Americans are going to be the ones who are harassed by police under this law," Mr. Willis said yesterday.
"Another concern is that legislators may have started a trend where they are designating themselves the arbiters of taste for Virginia, maybe even the fashion police," the ACLU director said. "This is simply not the kind of detail legislators should be addressing."
In June, Louisiana's Legislature rejected a bill that would have made it illegal to wear sagging pants that exposed a person's underwear. According to published reports, the Louisiana House voted 54-39 to reject the bill, which was later parodied on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." That bill would have imposed a $175 fine.
A little bit of parody is good for the legislative soul. (Although it's hard to see how a bill like HB 1981 is anything less than self-parody.) Jon Stewart, call your Richmond bureau.