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Homosexuality and bisexuality


U.S. laws that once criminalized same-
gender sexual behavior: the "Sodomy laws"

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Two quotations whose predictions have come true:

  • "The Supreme Court ruling to strike down the nation's anti-sodomy laws combined two of the most contentious issues on the political landscape by grounding the liberty of gays in the same legal turf that sustains the right to abortion -- and it directly points to yet another clash in the culture war: a fight over gay marriage." David Von Drehle Washington Post. 1

  • "State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity ... every single one of these laws is called into question by today's decision. ... If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is 'no legitimate state interest' for purposes of proscribing that conduct ... what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising '[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution?" Excerpt from the dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia in the Lawrence v. Texas case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. 2

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Two notes concerning terminology:

  • We discourage the use of the term "gay marriage" because the word "gay" is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to refer to male gays only, and sometimes to gays and lesbians together. Also some same-sex marriages are composed of one or two bisexuals. We recommend the term "same-sex marriage" or its acronym "SSM." These are more inclusive and accurate terms. A Google search for "same-sex marriage" on 2014-MAY-28 found 102 million hits; "gay marriage" found 9 million hits. As same-sex marriage becomes more popular in the U.S., we expect that SSM will be replaced simply by the term "marriage."

  • The terms "sodomy" and "sodomite" were derived from a story in the Bible. Genesis 19 refers to an incident in the city of Sodom where a group of male adults unsuccessfully attempted to gang rape two visiting angels as an act of humiliation and rejection. Other biblical references to Sodom show that the "sin" of the city was related to its poor treatment of strangers, the poor, and needy. One exception is a reference to Sodom in Jude which appears to imply that the "sin" was bestiality -- sexual activity by a human with a different species. This was because the men of Sodom attempted to rape two angels, who are non-human.

    However, the incident has been interpreted by many conservative Christian theologians as a homosexual act motivated by the men being sexually attracted to other males. These theologians teach that the men's behavior was punished by God who destroyed the city and exterminated all of the newborns, babies, children, adults, and elderly. This passage in Genesis is often used to condemn all same-gender sexual acts, including consensual sexual activities in private by a loving, committed same-sex couple. Over time, "sodomy" was defined in many different ways, to include anal sex and oral sex.

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Laws prohibiting same-gender sexual behavior are commonly called "sodomy laws." They have taken many forms in different jurisdictions. Some criminalize certain behaviors by opposite-gender as well as same-gender couples. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that every sexual act except sexual intercourse between a married couple using the missionary position in the dark has been criminalized in at least one U.S. state at one time during its history.

These laws and regulations can be traced back at least to biblical times. In England, homosexual behavior was originally handled in the ecclesiastical courts. By 1791 CE, when the original 13 states ratified the Bill of Rights, they all treated sodomy as a criminal offense. By 1961, the U.S. military, and all of the states and territories maintained "sodomy" laws on their books -- some dating back more than a century. Some were worded so generally that they would even criminalize consensual oral sex in private between an opposite-sex married couple as a "crime against nature." In 1961, Illinois became the first American jurisdiction to repeal its sodomy law.

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a Georgia case that criminalized same-sex behavior and decided that the state's law was constitutional. They decided that a state has the constitutional authority to criminalize what it considered to be immoral behavior.

According to the Associated Press, sodomy laws remained on the books in 13 states as of the middle of 2003. "Sodomy" was illegal for everyone -- gay and straight -- in Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia. In addition, four contiguous states, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, criminalized certain forms of private, consensual sexual behavior between persons of the same gender, but permitted them if performed by a man and woman.

During the first half of 2003, the U.S. Supreme court studied the constitutionality of sodomy legislation. In the Lawrence v. Texas case, they reviewed a Texas law. It criminalized certain sexual behavior by same-sex couples even though the same activities are quite legal if done by opposite-sex couples. In a ground-breaking decision, the Court decided on 2003-JUN-26 that adults are free to engage in private consensual sex without government oppression. They placed limits on the ability of state governments to legislate sexual morality. The sodomy laws in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, were declared unconstitutional. Legal experts believe that the sodomy laws in the nine other states are now also null and void. Laws in a few states which criminalize fornication (sexual intercourse by unmarried persons), adultery, and other behaviors may also be overturned by this ruling.

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Topics covered in this section:

bulletSodomy legislation from biblical times to the 1960s

bulletChanges in laws criminalizing homosexual behavior since the 1960s

bulletLandmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court:
bullet Bowers vs. Hardwick (1986) upholding the constitutionality of Georgia's sodomy law
bulletRomer v. Evans (1996) overthrowing Colorado's Amendment 2 which prohibited the granting of equal civil rights and protections to gays and lesbians.
bullet Lawrence v. Texas (2003) declaring all state sodomy laws unconstitutional and laying the foundation for massive further changes across the U.S.
bulletOverview of the case, trial, appeals, arguments heard, concerns

bulletComments by Senator Santorum

bulletThe main court ruling, and its impact
bulletReactions to the main ruling by:
bullet The principals, media, etc.

bulletIndividuals and groups

bulletA secondary court ruling affecting a Kansas case: State v. Limon
bulletThe possibility of the future re-criminalizing of homosexual behavior
bulletCiting the Lawrence v. Texas ruling in other court cases

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Related topic on this web site:

bulletSame-sex marriage in the U.S., Canada and the rest of the world.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. David Von Drehle, "A Debate on Marriage, And More, Now Looms," Washington Post, 2003-JUN-27, Page A01, at:
  2. Elizabeth Flock, "Scalia Warned in Lawrence v. Texas Dissent That Striking Down Sodomy Laws Would Lead to Gay Marriage," U.S. News and World Report, 2013-JUN-26, at:

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Site navigation:

Home > "Hot" religious topics > Homosexuality > Homosexual laws > here

Home > "Religious laws > Homosexual laws  > here

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Copyright © 2002 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-DEC-13
Latest update: 2014-NOV-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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