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Americans should take a look at the superpower in the mirror before judging Russia for its anti-gay laws, says Russia President Vladimir Putin.
Putin spoke to a few reporters, including ABC This Week host George Stephanopoulos, ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. Stephanopoulos asked if gay and lesbian athletes who "wear a rainbow pin" or something like it to protest the law will be protected from prosecution.
Legally speaking, Putin said, "protesting a law does not amount to propaganda of sexuality or sexual abuse of children." He added:
"I'd like to ask our colleagues, my colleagues and friends, that as they try to criticize us, they would do well to set their own house in order first," he said. "I did say, after all, and this is public knowledge, that in some of the states in the U.S., homosexuality remains a felony."
Putin’s statement is misleading.
Several states do, in fact, have anti-sodomy laws. Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma specifically ban sodomy for gay Americans, and Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah have criminal sodomy laws that apply to everyone (see this 2011 Mother Jones map). (Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli unsuccessfully tried to reinstate Virginia’s sodomy ban, which he said would have protected minors. Montana repealed its law banning gay sex in 2013.)
Some, such as "buggery" in South Carolina, carry the weight of a felony, but most are misdemeanors. That part is nearly irrelevant.
The key thing to know, as Stephanopoulos tried to point out, is these laws were ruled unconstitutional in the landmark Supreme Court case Lawrence vs. Texas. The case stemmed from the 1998 arrest of a gay Houston couple accused of having sex in violation of state law. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 the Texas law is an unconstitutional privacy invasion under the country’s equal protection clause and invalidated these laws.
Even though prosecutions under the state’s sodomy law were rare, the court noted, the law did not serve a "legitimate state interest."
The decision did not erase the laws from each state’s books -- it just knocked out their teeth. State legislatures would have to pass repeals to get them out of state statutes, and some conservative states have ignored bills that call for repealing them.
The country’s sodomy laws that only applied to homosexuals are "not ancient in origin" and only started to appear in the late 1960s, said Dale Carpenter, a University of Minnesota constitutional law professor and author of the book Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans. The country’s early sodomy laws drew from the teachings of the King James Version of the Bible and applied to heterosexuals and homosexuals, he said.
The laws were more often used not as arrest-generators but as "permission slips to discriminate against gays and lesbians" in accommodations, child custody and adoption, jobs and education, Carpenter said. In practice, prosecutors usually invoked sodomy laws on top of other charges, such as rape or prostitution.
Many states started to repeal their sodomy laws in the 1960s. The laws that remain exist despite being "absolutely unenforceable," said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, the gay rights group that represented the couple arrested in Texas.
"That is not to say that it’s not stigmatizing and sometimes potentially misleading to have them on the books, and they should be erased from history," Gorenberg said.
The decade-old Lawrence vs. Texas ruling has not stopped some local law enforcement officials from using the laws, including against a gay couple who kissed at a restaurant in Texas or a sheriff’s office arresting a dozen men for sodomy in Louisiana (the Texas couple was never cited and charges in the Louisiana cases were dropped).
The penalty for violating Texas’ law is a Class C misdemeanor, on par with a speeding ticket if it could really be enforced, Carpenter said.
Putin’s comment misrepresents the reality in the United States, where many states have legalized gay marriage or passed anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation, Carpenter said.
"It’s much bigger than just sodomy laws," he said. "But if you want to focus on just that, it’s a whole lot more complicated than saying the states have felony laws. That just hardly scratches the surface."
Deflecting criticism of his country’s anti-gay propaganda law, Putin said, "In some of the states in the U.S., homosexuality remains a felony."
Several states still have sodomy laws on the books, and a few specifically prohibit gay sodomy. But the laws are unenforceable and have been for a decade after a Supreme Court ruling. That makes Putin’s statement that "homosexuality remains a felony" inaccurate.
We rate it False.
Interview with Dale Carpenter, University of Minnesota law school professor of constitutional law, Jan. 19, 2014
Interview with Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal deputy legal director, Jan. 19, 2014
ABC News, "Vladimir Putin defends anti-gay law, but vows no ‘problems’ for Olympic visitors," Jan. 19, 2014
American Civil Liberties Union, "History of Sodomy Laws and the Strategy that Led Up to Today's Decision," June 16, 2003
Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute, Lawrence v. Texas decision
Mother Jones, "Map: Has your state banned sodomy?" April 19, 2011
Mother Jones, "The Unconstitutional Anti-Gay Law That Just Won't Die," April 12, 2011
The Week, "Why do so many states still have anti-sodomy laws?" April 8, 2013
Austin American-Statesman, "Bills would take Texas’ illegal sodomy ban off books," March 25, 2011
TIME, "Louisiana Sodomy Sting: How Invalidated Sex Laws Still Lead to Arrests," July 31, 2013
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