Louisiana House rejects repeal of unenforceable law

The Louisiana House rejected legislation Tuesday that would remove a problematic anti-sodomy law from the state’s books.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, told legislators that House Bill 12 would simply strike unconstitutional language from state law.

Opponents warned the bill would make children more vulnerable to sexual predators.

The underlying thread to criticism of the bill was a resistance to officially declaring homosexual sex legal in Louisiana.

“Just because we decriminalize things doesn’t make it right,” state Rep. Valarie Hodges said.

The outcome: 27 voted for the bill; 67 voted against it.

One of two Republicans to vote in favor of HB12 in committee flipped. State Rep. Frankie Howard, R-Many, voted against the bill on the floor despite voting in favor of it earlier in the month.

After the House adjourned, Howard a former sheriff who celebrated his 54th wedding anniversary with his wife, Betty, on Tuesday said bills sometimes get favorable votes in committee simply to ensure further debate on the floor.

“I looked at it a little bit more and decided to vote against it,” Howard said.

Equality Louisiana, a Baton Rouge group that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights statewide, credited the Louisiana Family Forum with killing the legislation.

“The state House of Representatives decided that the Louisiana Family Forum’s disapproval is more important than the Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice under the law,” the group said.

The law in question defines consensual oral and anal sex between human beings gay or straight as a crime against nature or aggravated crime against nature. The criminalization is problematic because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Texas more than a decade ago.

In Louisiana, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the unconstitutionality of Louisiana’s statute.

Louisiana’s anti-sodomy law remains on the books, and at least a dozen men have been arrested for violating the law. The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office held stings at public parks to arrest gay men for setting up trysts. The parish’s district attorney refused to prosecute, saying no crime had occurred.

Sheriff Sid Gautreaux apologized for the arrests and vowed to push for removing the unenforceable portions of the anti-sodomy law from the state’s criminal statutes.

Smith wanted to erase the problem language, leaving intact a part of the law that protects animals from sexual abuse. Her argument was that taxpayer money is wasted when law enforcement officers make arrests that cannot be prosecuted.

Efforts to repeal the law have been fraught with controversy. The Metro Council refused to make the symbolic gesture of endorsing Smith’s legislation. Once the bill came up for debate, residents and religious leaders warned that erasing the law would be counterproductive to successfully battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Opponents also talked about God, gay cruising sites and maintaining a family-friendly environment for children.

The fact the bill cleared committee was a win for the LGBT community, which does not prevail on many issues at the State Capitol.

The Louisiana Family Forum, a politically powerful organization that characterizes itself as a traditional voice for families in Louisiana, battled back between the committee vote and floor debate. The organization sent legislators a letter asking them to protect children from sexual predators by voting against HB12.

Among the Louisiana Family Forum’s arguments was that HB12 would repeal a law that punishes sodomy with children. Smith denounced that statement on the floor, saying a dozen other statutes protect children from sexual acts. She said children are protected against rape, sexual battery and other crimes.

For the benefit of his colleagues, state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, pointed out to Smith that the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office felt the law should come off the state’s books. Smith agreed with his statement.

The Louisiana Family Forum’s letter also accused HB12’s advocates of forgetting that people were using public parks as playgrounds for anonymous sex, prompting one park to post signs limiting bathroom use to one adult male at a time. The organization argued the Supreme Court ruling dealt with private behavior not crime against nature in public places.

“Louisiana’s anti-sodomy statute is consistent with the values of Louisiana residents who consider this behavior to be dangerous, unhealthy, and immoral,” the organization wrote.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said the law protects children and has been on the state’s books for 200 years.

Louisiana’s crime against nature statute — R.S. 14:89 — dates to 1805. The statute bans “the unnatural carnal copulation by a human being with another of the same sex or opposite sex.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, then-state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub issued a statement saying the state’s anti-sodomy law would be unenforceable except for provisions banning sodomy for compensation and sex with animals. The entire law remained on the books.

Hodge told the House that a vote of no would be a vote of conscience.

“I wasn’t elected to rubber stamp the Supreme Court,” she said, refusing to take questions from other legislators.

Smith said the Supreme Court is the ultimate court in the land. She said repealing an unconstitutional law would not threaten children. She pointed out that the infamous bathroom sign dates back many years.

At least one of the arrests made by the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office actually was made at an apartment even though the encounter between the suspect and an undercover deputy started at Manchac Park. The two adjourned to the apartment for “some drinks and some fun” last year.

“The bill and I say it again only removes the unconstitutional language,” Smith said.

After the vote, Tim S. West, president of Equality Louisiana, said the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association refused to take a stance on the bill.

“Over the summer, they sure were quick to announce their support of the repeal, when the nation was watching and the pressure was on. Once they got credit for saying the right thing in the media, LSA failed to follow through with actions to back up their empty words,” he said.