Nine years ago this week, the Virginia Supreme Court overturned a 19th-century law that forbade cohabitation by adults who were not legally married. The Court based its ruling, in part, on the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned the Lone Star State's law against homosexual sodomy.
A few days after the Virginia Supreme Court issued its ruling in Martin v. Ziherl on January 14, 2005, I wrote about the case for The Hook, a Charlottesville weekly. (See this previous post regarding another article I wrote for The Hook on a quite different topic.)
This commentary piece was originally published on January 20, 2005, in print and on line.
Fornication 86ed: Virginia enters the Twentieth CenturyBy Richard E. Sincere
When the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in the otherwise obscure case of Martin v. Ziherl on January 14, it belatedly brought the Commonwealth into the 20th century.
How so? The court overturned a law dating to the early 19th century, which had not been enforced since 1847, banning sexual relations between two unmarried, consenting adults. It recognized that human beings living in Virginia have a liberty interest in protecting their private relationships from governmental interference.
While the case at hand addressed "fornication" performed by a heterosexual couple, the court made clear that, should a similar case come before it, involving two persons of the same sex and the state's sodomy law (also known as the "Crimes Against Nature," or CAN, statute), it would overturn that law, too.
The Virginia court relied almost exclusively in its reasoning on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, which said a Texas law prohibiting sexual relations between persons of the same gender was unconstitutional.
Referring to the earlier federal case, Virginia Justice Elizabeth Lacy, writing for the court, stated: " ... this same liberty interest is invoked in this case when two unmarried adults make the choice to engage in the intimate sexual conduct proscribed by Code [Section] 18.2-344. Thus, as in Lawrence, the Commonwealth's interests do not warrant such encroachment on personal liberty."
Virginia State Capitol in Richmond
In so doing, the court swept away the rationale for a raft of laws that infringe on the rights of individuals– gay or straight, single or married– to engage in private, consensual, sexual conduct. (The ruling does not affect, the court said, "the Commonwealth's police power regarding regulation of public fornication, prostitution, or other such crimes.")
The General Assembly has, on numerous occasions, considered legislation that would have had the same effect– repealing archaic laws that have no place in a liberty-loving society. Each time the state legislators had an opportunity to modernize the Virginia code's sections dealing with sexual conduct, they let it pass by. Thus it was up to the state Supreme Court to act.
Lest certain ideologues accuse the court of "judicial activism" and of being out of synch with public opinion, two points are in order:
First, the Court's opinion was squarely in line with precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, it respected the principle of stare decisis. (According to Bouvier's Law Dictionary, "stare decisis" means "To abide or adhere to decided cases," adding in explanation, "It is a general maxim that when a point has been settled by decision, it forms a precedent which is not afterwards to be departed from.")
Second, the Court's ruling reflects public opinion rather than contradicts it.
In January 2001, Rasmussen Research, an independent polling organization, conducted a statewide survey of Virginia voters to determine knowledge and attitudes about Virginia's CAN statute and related issues. Among its findings were:
* When asked "Should it be against the law for an unmarried man and an unmarried woman to have sex in the state of Virginia?" 71.1 percent of respondents answered "no," including 67.4 percent of self-identified Republicans (those voters one would most expect to answer "yes").
* When asked "Should it be against the law for a married couple to have oral sex in the privacy of their own home?" 81.7 percent said "no" (including 78.9 percent of Republicans).
* When asked "Currently, according to Virginia law, it is illegal for consenting adults to have oral sex in the state of Virginia; a proposal has been made to eliminate the Virginia law; should the Virginia law be eliminated?" 65.2 percent answered "yes", including 61.4 percent of Republicans.
General Assembly members have often maintained, off-the-record, that they are wary of changing Virginia's laws regulating private sexual conduct, because they think they will have hell to pay on election day if they do so. But they have nothing to fear. The Rasmussen poll also asked how voters would cast their ballots for legislators who support repeal of such laws. Overall, 82.9 percent of Virginians said that they would either be more likely to vote for such legislators, or it would have no impact on their vote.
Now, some might argue that a four-year-old opinion survey may not accurately reflect the current attitudes of Virginia voters. That may be true. But it would be up to the naysayers to provide concrete, scientifically valid evidence that proves it wrong.
The court's decision is cause for celebration by all Virginians, as it has removed one more layer of government intrusiveness from our lives. We are freer today than we were on January 13, unencumbered by unconstitutional laws that strike at the heart of our most personal liberties. At the dawn of the 21st century, Virginia is finally reconciled to the 20th.
Charlottesville resident Richard Sincere is author of The Politics of Sentiment.
Accompanying the article was this sidebar from The Hook's editor, Hawes Spencer:
As for sodomy... In 1993, a Richmond area woman, Sharon Bottoms, lost custody of her two-year-old child due to her "felonious behavior": oral sex.I had earlier discussed the Bottoms case in the Free Lance-Star in 2001 and in a press release from Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty in 1996.
Closer to home, both the Charlottesville and Albemarle Police departments utilized the "sodomy" statute in 1998 to threaten citizens with felonies. In Charlottesville, the goal was ridding West Main Street of prostitution. In Albemarle, 14 men were charged for using a restrooms at the Ivy Creek Natural Area as their little pleasure palace. So how to purify the parks?
House Bill 1054 from Dave Albo (R-Springfield) would convert an old anti-fornication, anti-cohabitation statute into a ban on sex in public places.– editor
The issue is not dead. State Senator Tom Garrett (R-Lynchburg) has introduced a bill this year that would revivify the unconstitutional "Crimes Against Nature" statute in the Virginia Code, which was invalidated by Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, by amending the notorious § 18.2-361.
Garrett's bill passed the Courts of Justice Committee in the form of a substitute (the patron apparently tried to address some of the criticisms that had been leveled at his bill) and is now before the Committee on Finance for further consideration.
The comments on this bill found on Richmond Sunlight are enlightening.