ACLU Takes Aim at State Sodomy Law That 'Invites the State into Every Bedroom in Minnesota'

Affiliate: ACLU of Minnesota
June 22, 2000 12:00 am

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MINNEAPOLIS — Vowing to strike down a “patently unconstitutional” state law that regulates consensual intimacy between any adults – including married couples – the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project today filed a class-action lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s sodomy statute.

Under the sodomy law, oral sex and other private, noncommercial, consensual intimacy is punishable by up to a year in prison and $3,000 in fines.

“Most Minnesotans don’t realize that the sodomy law applies to them,” said MCLU Legal Counsel Teresa Nelson. “But, in fact, this statute criminalizes all oral and anal sex, even when it’s entirely private and noncommercial contact between consenting adults. People of all backgrounds and from across the ideological spectrum ought to be alarmed by this law: it invites the state into every bedroom in Minnesota.”

The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of a diverse cross-section of state citizens, whose jobs, homes and relationships with their children are jeopardized by possible enforcement of the sodomy law, which applies to heterosexuals as well as lesbians and gay men.

Nelson noted that a straight man was recently arrested and charged with violating the sodomy statute.

The complaint in Doe, et al. v. Ventura, et al. alleges that the sodomy statute is unconstitutional because it violates the right of privacy guaranteed by the Minnesota Constitution. The lawsuit requests that the court declare the statute void and that Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura and Attorney General Mike Hatch be enjoined from enforcing it.

The Minnesotans named in the lawsuit are at risk of being prosecuted or otherwise adversely affected by the law because they each engage and continue to engage in private, noncommercial, consensual acts prohibited by the sodomy statute. Representing the vast number of adult Minnesotans who are at risk under the sodomy law, they include:

  • A quadriplegic married man who lives in Minneapolis, identified for privacy reasons only as “John Doe.” Because of his disability, the only forms of intimacy he is capable of engaging in with his wife are among those criminalized under the sodomy statute.
  • A married elementary school teacher who lives in Minneapolis, Mark Roe. Teachers can lose their credentials if they are found to be violating state law, including the sodomy statute.
  • A lesbian attorney in Minneapolis, who lives in a rented townhouse. Identified as “Jane Doe” in the lawsuit, she could face eviction from her home because her lease prohibits illegal activity.
  • A gay law student in Minneapolis, Phil Duran, who lives in an apartment with a similar lease. Duran plans to take the state bar exam in July — a test that could be moot because individuals who violate state law, including the sodomy statute, can be disbarred.
  • A divorced gay man in Minneapolis, Kim Nyhus, who has visitation rights with his children. A former Methodist minister who is now working toward Episcopal ordination, Nyhus fears losing visitation with his children because of the state sodomy statute.
  • The Minnesota Lavender Bar Association, a group of and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered lawyers and law students. The Association is a plaintiff on behalf of its members statewide, who are directly threatened by the sodomy statute.

Generally, sodomy laws prohibit oral and anal sex, even between consenting adults. In 1961, all 50 states (as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) had sodomy laws on the books. Since then, legislatures in 25 states (including those neighboring Minnesota) have repealed their sodomy laws. The ACLU and other groups have successfully challenged sodomy laws in state courts, arguing that they violate state constitutions.

Since 1993, the ACLU has helped overturn sodomy laws in Kentucky, Tennessee, Montana, Georgia and Maryland. The ACLU is currently helping challenge sodomy laws in Louisiana, Virginia and Puerto Rico. Currently 18 states retain their sodomy statutes. Of those, five apply only to lesbians and gay men.

Sodomy laws have been used nationwide to deny a variety of basic civil rights to people, particularly lesbians and gay men, according to Michael Adams, Associate Director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “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 criminals in states with sodomy laws,” Adams said.

Indeed, as recently as 1997, a man in Beltrami County in northern Minnesota was prosecuted under the state sodomy law for private, noncommercial, consensual conduct with an adult.

Because even sodomy laws that legally apply to everyone are often used selectively against lesbians and gay men, they have been a potent political weapon for those who oppose equal civil rights. In Minnesota, the sodomy law was used for years to help prevent passage of a state law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. That law was finally enacted in 1993.

In addition to Nelson of the MCLU and Adams of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, Timothy Branson, from the Minneapolis law firm of Dorsey and Whitney, is a Volunteer Attorney on the case filed today.

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