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Missouri's sodomy law under scrutiny

November 6, 2003
By: Josh Hinkle
State Capital Bureau

Missouri is one of three states with a law that bans homosexual acts. Josh Hinkle has more on why this law may soon come off the books.

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Missouri's sodomy statutes went into effect in 1856, banning sexual intercourse between persons of the same sex.

Though rarely enforced, the law remains on the books, threatening one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Now, a June U.S. Supreme Court decision may prompt legislators to make a change.

A Missouri gay rights group--PROMO--was founded in 1986 specifically to repeal the sodomy law.

PROMO director Julie Brueggemann says the group wants the change to come soon.

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"WE'VE LOBBIED LEGISLATORS. WE'VE DONE OUTREACH AND EDUCATION TO THE COMMUNITY. WE'VE TALKED TO MEDIA OUTLETS. WE'VE BEEN WORKING ON THAT ISSUE FOR 16 YEARS, SO I WOULD SAY WE'VE DONE QUITE A BIT."

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And PROMO's dreams may soon become reality. State Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson plans to sponsor legislation in the upcoming year that would make homosexual activity legal, in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wilson says the court decision is not enough, the law itself must also change.

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"IF IT STAYS ON MISSOURI'S BOOKS, EVEN THOUGH IT'S AN INVALID LAW, IT WOULD BE POSSIBLE IF SOMEONE WANTED TO HARASS SOMEONE TO ARREST THEM UNDER MISSOURI LAW AND THEN THEY WOULD HAVE THE HASSLE OF GOING TO COURT TO SAY THAT IT'S AN INVALID LAW. SO IT'S A LOT SIMPLER AND CHEAPER FOR EVERYONE IF WE CLEAN UP OUR STATUTES TO COMPLY WITH THE SUPREME COURT RULING."

Attempts to change the law are not new -- Wilson sponsored an amendment, which was defeated in 1999, aimed at overturning the law.

Former state Representative Tim Van Zandt also sponsored a bill in 1998 to do away with Missouri's sexual miscoduct law.

And in 2002, Van Zandt, the first openly gay legislator in Missouri, circulated a letter to the House, calling for the repeal of the law. Only 33 of the state's 162 representatives signed the letter.

Just one month later, undercover police raided an adult video store near St. Louis.

During the raid, they witnessed men engaged in sexual acts with each other.

Jefferson County District Attorney Bob Wilkins says he charged the men under the state's sodomy statutes to stop that kind of activity from recurring.

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"MY INTENT WAS TO STOP THE ACTIVITY AT THE BUSINESS. I DON'T CARE WHETHER IT'S HOMOSEXUAL OR HETEROSEXUAL. IT WAS THE OPEN AND NOTORIOUS ACT ITSELF."

In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Texas law banning sodomy among same-sex couples was unconstitutional.

Now Wilkins can only charge the men with open sexual activity in a public place.

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"SUBSEQUENT TO THIS SUPREME COURT DECISION, WE HAVE DISMISSED THE COUNT THAT ALLEGES THE HOMOSEXUAL ACTIVITY, SO THE ONLY THING THAT REMAINS IS THAT THEY ENGAGED IN SEXUAL CONTACT IN THE PRESENCE OF A THIRD PERSON UNDER CIRCUMSTANCES LIKELY TO CAUSE AFFRONT OR ALARM."

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Now groups like PROMO can only wait to see if the legislature will make the Supreme Court's decision official by repealing Missouri's law and reversing a 147-year-old tradition.