Stephanie Grace: Lawmakers fail test of common sense

The proposed repeal of Louisiana’s crimes against nature law really should have been a simple administrative fix.

The law, as everyone knows, can’t be enforced because the U.S. Supreme Court deemed bans on specific sexual activities between consenting adults unconstitutional. That makes the portion of the measure criminalizing oral and anal sex the legal equivalent of clutter. Why not just lighten the law books and move on?

Yet last week, the state House voted 67-27 to play pack rat, to cling to a law that has passed its expiration date and holds no possibility of future utility. Which makes you wonder: Just what is it that those who conspired to kill Baton Rouge state Rep. Patricia Smith’s common-sense effort to update the code can’t let go of?

Is it principle? After watching the House’s surprisingly brief treatment of the subject, I’d have to say mostly no. The politicians who saw fit to preserve the law didn’t exactly line up to defend their position for the cameras and for the permanent record. Most kept quiet and seemed to just want to get the distasteful discussion over as quickly as possible.

A rare exception was state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, who took to the floor and noted that it was the week of Easter and Passover — which is true but irrelevant to the topic at hand — and argued lawmakers are “not here to rubber stamp the Supreme Court,” which is simply ridiculous; of course state law is subject to the high court’s rulings. Hodges, by the way, once revoked her support for the state’s private school voucher program when she found out the money could go to Muslim as well as Christian schools, which also calls into her question her credentials as a constitutional scholar.

No, for most, the driving force behind the vote seemed to be fear.

Fear of what, exactly? Well, they didn’t say, but it’s pretty easy to guess. Fear that someone might suggest those who voted to get rid of the law might actually sympathize with the gay men it has been used to target as recently as last year. Fear that the all-powerful Louisiana Family Forum, the state’s self-appointed arbiter of religious propriety, might call them out, as the group implicitly threatened to do in an alarmist letter campaign after Smith’s HB12 made it through a House committee. Among the Family Forum’s scare tactics was a claim that overturning the law would enable child predators, which is hogwash; there are other laws on the books to address sexual crimes against children.

It’s the same sort of misplaced apprehension that has kept lawmakers from addressing issues that have a real impact on people’s lives, including the lack of full parental rights for both partners in legally valid marriages performed in other states. Explain to me again how acknowledging these families’ existence violates family values?

While it’s possible to argue that the crimes against nature law’s survival has no practical effect, what with it being unenforceable and unconstitutional and all, the problem is that it could. The dozen men targeted by East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux’s sting at Manchac Park between 2011 and 2013 weren’t prosecuted because District Attorney Hillar Moore III knew and understood the law. But they were still humiliated, arrested and carted off to jail, which is bad enough. Gautreaux, by the way, now sees the light; he apologized for his department’s actions and endorsed Smith’s effort to clear up the confusion.

Honestly, if lawmakers can’t muster the courage to just clarify the rules, how can we expect them to take on the decisions that really are hard, to make responsible, principled choices when there are actually two valid sides?

This should have been a bookkeeping matter, but too many lawmakers chose to turn it into a litmus test. Needless to say, they’re the ones who failed.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.