Citing "Chilling Effect" of Puerto Rico's Sodomy Law, Judge Says ACLU Challenge Must Go Forward

March 8, 1999 12:00 am

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SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO–Saying that an American Civil Liberties challenge to Puerto Rico’s sodomy statute must go forward, a Superior Court judge here rejected the government’s contention that nobody is injured by the law.

In a decision issued on March 5, Judge Carmen Rita Velez Borras ordered that the ACLU lawsuit must proceed because the existence of the sodomy statute, together with threats by government officials to enforce it, has a “chilling effect” on sexual expression and relationships.

“To suggest that nobody is injured when the government brands gay men and lesbians as criminals because of their intimate relationships is to dehumanize a whole class of people,” said Michael Adams, Associate Director of the ACLU’s national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and one of the attorneys in the legal challenge. “We are thrilled that the court has rejected this callous argument.”

Reverend Margarita Sanchez, lead plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, welcomed the ruling. “This is a wonderful day for me, my partner and for all other lesbians and gay men in Puerto Rico who have had to live under the cloud of this law,” she said. “The court’s ruling is the first step toward legal recognition of the fact that our lives and our relationships deserve the same kind of respect and protection as anybody else’s.”

The ACLU lawsuit targets Puerto Rico’s “crime against nature” statute. Under the law, anyone who “has sexual intercourse with people of the same sex or commits the crime against nature with a human being” is guilty of a felony and liable for penalties of up to $1,000 or 10 years in prison. The lawsuit is brought on behalf of Reverend Sanchez and five other lesbian and gay Puerto Ricans.

Because the sodomy statute also makes it a crime for heterosexuals to commit the “crime against nature,” the ACLU appears as a plaintiff in the lawsuit on behalf of its heterosexual members who are affected by the sodomy statute.

Now that the Puerto Rico court has rejected the Secretary of Justice’s motion to dismiss the ACLU lawsuit, the case will move into a fact-finding phase, and then to trial, Adams said.

Laws criminalizing sexual intimacy, including sodomy, were once on the books in all 50 states, but many have been repealed or struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Most recently, a Maryland court struck down that state’s sodomy statute in an ACLU case, and courts in Georgia and Louisiana have held those states’ sodomy laws unconstitutional.

Sodomy and oral sex laws remain on the books today in 18 states and Puerto Rico. Five states and Puerto Rico have statutes that single out gay men and lesbians for punishment.

The case is Sanchez et al. v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Attorneys in the case are Michael Adams, Associate Director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, and Charles Hey Maestre and Nora Vargas Acosta, both of San Juan.

The court’s ruling was issued in Spanish. For translated highlights, visit the ACLU’s website at /court/sanchezvcommonwealth_dec.html. Visitors to the website can also read read the ACLU’s previous release on the case at /news/n062398d.html

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