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Bill to repeal Maryland sodomy law dies in committee

‘Perverted Sexual Practice’ measure remains on books for at least one more year

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Jeremy LaMaster, executive director of FreeState Justice, said the group lobbied for the sodomy repeal bill this year. (Photo courtesy Free State Justice)

A bill calling for repeal of a Maryland law that classifies oral sex between consenting adults as a crime and that was used to arrest four gay men in an adult video store in May 2021 was approved earlier this year by the state’s House of Delegates but died in a committee of the state Senate.

In a development that disappointed LGBTQ activists and the bill’s sponsors, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee failed to act on the bill before the Maryland General Assembly adjourned for the year on April 11.

Sen. William ‘Will’ Smith (D-Montgomery County), who chairs the Democratic controlled committee, said the committee was faced with a large number of bills in a legislative session that lasts only 90 days, and it wasn’t able to get to Senate Bill 22, which called for repealing the state’s Unnatural or Perverted Sexual Practices Act.

“It’s a top priority for me,” Smith told the Washington Blade. “We will get to it next year. It’s just that we ran out of time,” he said. “It wasn’t a lack of willingness. So, I’m working with Sen. Lam to make sure it’s at the top of the agenda next year.”

Smith was referring to State Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Baltimore & Howard County), who introduced the bill in the Senate in January.

Smith said among the other bills that his committee worked on and approved, and that passed both houses of the General Assembly, was the Inclusive Schools Act, which prohibits state funded schools, including private religious schools receiving state funding, from discriminating against students based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, nationality, or disability.

Lam told the Blade he is disappointed his bill seeking to repeal the state’s remaining sodomy law did not make it out of the Senate committee. He said he’s hopeful the bill will pass in the General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session.

“My understanding is that it’s not because of policy concerns from the committee leadership,” Lam said in referring to the reason the Senate committee didn’t act on the bill. “I think the fact was they ran out of time to address this issue, which is frustrating because I think this is an important issue,” he said. “And I understand, and I recognize that they have a lot of important issues they’re working with, much of which was very substantive and weighty.”

The Judicial Proceedings Committee’s inability to act on the bill came after the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee approved the measure and sent it to the full House of Delegates, which passed it by a vote of 121 to 10, with one member not voting and nine members absent, according to the bill tracking site LegiScan.

The committee’s failure to act on the bill this year also came two years after it approved a separate bill in 2020 calling for repealing the section of Maryland’s two-part sodomy law that outlawed anal sex. As first introduced, the 2020 bill called for repealing both provisions of the archaic law – the so-called “Sodomy” provision banning anal sex and the Unnatural or Perverted Sexual Practice provision banning oral sex.

But at the request of two Republican members of the committee, Sens. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll County) and Bob Cassilly (R-Harford County), the committee’s Democratic members and the other two GOP members agreed to drop from the bill the section calling for repeal of the Unnatural or Perverted Sexual Practice provision. The committee consists of seven Democrats and four Republicans.

The full General Assembly then passed the amended bill that repealed only the “sodomy” section of the law during the General Assembly’s 2020 session. The House of Delegates, which initially passed the full two-part bill, agreed to the Senate’s changes. House of Delegates member David Moon (D-Montgomery County), who introduced the 2020 bill in the House, said he and his House colleagues reluctantly agreed to the Senate version because the only alternative was to have no bill at all.

Moon introduced this year’s version of the repeal bill in the House and helped guide it to passage by the full House before the bill died in the Senate committee.

The section of the law that this year’s bill would have repealed and that now remains on the books, states, “A person may not take the sexual organ of another or of an animal in the person’s mouth; place the person’s sexual organ in the mouth of another or of an animal; or commit another unnatural or perverted sexual practice with another or with an animal.”

Supporters of the repeal bill point out that other existing Maryland laws outlaw abusive treatment of animals as well as non-consensual sexual acts or sexual acts between adults and minors. The supporters, including the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, said repealing the Unnatural or Perverted Sexual Practice statute would not prevent the full prosecution of anyone engaging in abuse of animals, rape, or sex with minors.

Many LGBTQ activists were unaware that the repeal bill that passed in 2020 did not include the part of the statute outlawing oral sex. Many did not realize that change had been made to the 2020 repeal bill until the Harford County, Md., Sheriff’s Department conducted a May 20, 2021, raid on the adult Bush River Books & Video store in the town of Abingdon, which is located 25 miles north of Baltimore.

The Sheriff’s Department said one of its deputies, who entered the store undercover in plainclothes, observed what officials said was illegal activity by nine men, who were arrested during the raid. Most were charged with indecent exposure. Four were arrested on the charge of Unnatural or Perverted Sexual Practice.

One of the arrested men told the Blade he and most of the others arrested were caught engaging in sex inside locked video booths that the Sheriff’s deputies opened with keys they obtained from a store employee.

Court records show that the Unnatural or Perverted Sexual Practice charges appear to have been dropped against the four men who were faced with that charge. In response to a request from the Blade, Harford County Deputy State’s Attorney Gavin Patashnick, one of the prosecutors in the case, confirmed that “all perverted practice charges were dropped with no preconditions.”

But the attorneys — and an official with the national LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal — said the fact that law enforcement officials would seek to invoke the Unnatural or Perverted Sexual Practice statute was an unfair practice that subjected their clients to an unnecessary burden of an arrest.

Jeremy LaMaster, executive director of the Maryland LGBTQ advocacy group FreeState Justice, said the group engaged in lobbying efforts in support of this year’s repeal bill. He said in the final week of the General Assembly’s legislative session the group urged Smith and the Judicial Proceedings Committee’s vice chair, Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery County), to bring the bill up for a committee vote.

“We were advised a few times during the week by both Sens. Waldstreicher and Smith that it would be added to the committee voting list,” LaMaster said in a statement. “We monitored it daily and never saw it appear on a voting list.”

Gay Democratic activist Jeffrey Slavin, who serves as mayor of the Maryland town of Somerset near D.C., said he, too, was disappointed that the repeal bill failed to pass this year. 

“There’s really no excuse,” he said. “It’s a no brainer. And there are people who are being harassed needlessly because that law is still on the books. It’s from the last century. It’s ridiculous,” Slavin said, adding, “It’s a shame that this issue isn’t being raised on the campaign trail.”

Montgomery County LGBTQ activist Michael Tardif said he was skeptical about “excuses” of a heavy workload of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a reported lack of sufficient time to get to the repeal bill.

“This is non-controversial legislation to repeal a heinous, outdated law that is still being used to ensnare LGBTQ people for private, consensual conduct,” he said. “The House Judiciary Committee has the same workload as the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and managed to pass the House bill by Feb. 17,” Tardif told the Blade. “’Not enough time’ does not adequately explain why Senate Bill 22 did not even receive a vote in Judicial Proceedings,” he said, referring to the bill number for the repeal measure in question.

Smith told the Blade that because the state Senate has fewer members than the House of Delegates, the Senate committees have fewer members than the House to work on important legislation.

“The Maryland State Senate has four committees,” he said. “The House of Delegates has six. That means each committee in the Senate has 25 percent more jurisdiction over subject matters than each House committee.” He said each House committee has 21 members while each Senate committee has 11 members.

 “And although we work feverishly there is no way we can keep up with the pace of the House because that’s by design” of the legislature, he said. “And every subject we go with is extremely serious, and so is this one,” said Smith, referring to the sodomy repeal bill that didn’t make it through his committee this year.

“And as I’ve told you and others, we will get to this bill next year, come hell or high water,” he said.

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Maryland

Abortion rights in post-Roe Maryland, Delaware

Practice generally legal, with some restrictions

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (Public domain photo)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, which in 1973 found that the decision to receive an abortion was generally protected by the Constitution of the United States. With the broadest federal protection of abortion access now rescinded, the legality of abortion will by and large be determined on the state level.

In Delaware, abortion is legal through the Medical Practice Act — but with some restrictions.

After fetal viability, or the point where a fetus can survive outside the uterus, abortion in the First State becomes illegal unless necessary for the patient’s “life or health,” or if the fetus has a condition “for which there is not a reasonable likelihood” that it will survive outside the uterus, according to Subchapter IX of the act

Additionally, under the state’s Parental Notice of Abortion Act, physicians cannot perform a surgical abortion on minors under the age of 16 unless the patient’s parent or guardian has received at least 24 hours notice from a medical professional. Notice is not required for nonsurgical abortions.

On the federal level, the funding of abortion is illegal through the 1977 Hyde Amendement “except in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest,” according to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive rights advocacy organization. States are only federally required to fund abortions that meet these conditions through federal-state Medicaid programs. 

While some states also fund abortions deemed medically necessary regardless of whether they endanger a patient’s life, Delaware state law does not extend beyond federal guidelines: The state only funds abortions in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest.

Abortion legislation in Delaware mirrors neighboring Maryland, whose laws include similar restrictions on abortion after fetal viability and abortion for minors under the age of 16. But abortion laws in these states are generally more restrictive than other mid-Atlantic counterparts, such as New Jersey and New York.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) weighed in on the state’s abortion law on Friday.

“In 1992, Maryland voters approved a constitutional referendum legalizing and protecting access to abortion as a matter of state law – that measure remains in effect today following the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of Maryland, and that is what I have always done and will continue to do as governor.”

The impact of Roe v. Wade’s fall in Delaware remains uncertain. While the abortion rate in Delaware steadily declined between 2014 and 2017, recent findings show that instances of abortion are increasing once again in the state, reflecting a rise on the national level.

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Maryland

Howard County executive announces plans for LGBTQ commission

Calvin Ball made announcement at Wednesday press conference in Columbia

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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announces plans for new LGBTQ commission. (Photo courtesy of Howard County government)

Under the “People’s Tree” sculpture near the Columbia lakefront, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced at a press conference on Wednesday the filing of legislation that would permanently establish the current LGBTQ Workgroup as a formal commission.

The new commission would follow the work of the LGBTQ Workgroup launched in 2019 by Ball.

“This commission will help move Howard County forward and will identify best practices to affirm members of the gay and transgender community; recommend initiatives to support LGBTQIA+ families and children; and advise us on policy and programs that impact our gay and transgender community, and on how to improve outcomes for underserved and at-risk members of the LGBTQIA+ population,” said Ball in his opening remarks in front of a crowd that included members of the LGBTQ Workgroup, county employees, members of the county’s Human Rights commissioners and LGBTQ activists and allies as well as elected officials and candidates.

He added, “The commission will support, plan, and help execute events, like PRIDE, to celebrate and affirm our community.”

Ball, speakers at the event included Human Rights and Equity Administrator Yolanda Sonier; Register of Wills Byron Macfarlane; Howard County Human Rights Commissioner Bob Ford; PFLAG-Howard County President Jumel Howard and community member Vicki Weiss Vivrette.

“Howard County and Maryland have always led the way on LGBTQ+ rights,” said Macfarlane, a lifetime Howard County resident and the first openly gay elected official in the county. “From Howard County’s anti-discrimination law passed many decades ago, to hate crime and anti-discrimination laws at the state level, to Maryland becoming one of the first states to pass marriage equality — not by judicial fiat — but by popular vote. Our community and our allies have achieved so much, but we know our hard-fought rights are under siege as we speak.”

Ford, the only out member of the county’s Human Rights Commission, continued that point. 

“From a failed attempt to disrupt a Pride celebration in Idaho, to storming into a drag queen storytelling session in California, to over 200 bills in state legislatures aimed at stripping the rights of LGBTQ people especially trans kids — these are wake-up calls. Moreover, at one political party’s convention in Texas this past weekend, language was added to their platform that ‘homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle choice’ and that party opposes ‘all efforts to validate transgender identity.’”

Ford pointed out that recent Pride flag burnings in Baltimore and that Pride flags have been banned in neighboring Carroll County schools, the chopping down and theft of a welcoming sign from a local church, and a vocal group of parents trying to ban LGBTQ content from books to curricula in schools indicate Howard County is not immune to hate.

The plan for the establishment of the new commission requires the approval of the county council and will be filed in July.

The George Howard Building, the headquarters for Howard County government, was bathed in rainbow lights after Wednesday’s event.

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Maryland

Man arrested for anti-LGBTQ vandalism at P.G. County libraries

Graffiti of word ‘groomer’ listed as hate crime

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(Photo courtesy of the P.G. County Police)

Prince George’s County, Md., police on Thursday charged a Takoma Park, Md., man with two counts of hate-related malicious destruction of property for allegedly spray painting in large yellow letters the word “groomer” on two public library buildings of the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System.

A June 16 statement released by P.G. police states that Charles Southerland, 30, of Takoma Park allegedly carried out the vandalism at the Greenbelt Branch Library at 11 Crescent Rd., Greenbelt, Md., on June 4 and at the New Carrollton Branch Library at 7414 Riverdale Rd., New Carrollton, Md., on June 9.

WTOP News reports that Sutherland himself is a librarian working at the Prince George’s County public school system’s library at Northview Elementary School in Bowie, Md. The school system says Southerland has been placed on administrative leave.

“The preliminary investigation revealed Southerland spray-painted the word ‘groomer’ on the exteriors of both buildings,” the P.G. County police statement says. “He has confessed to the incidents,” the statement continues. “Anyone with information on Southerland is encouraged to call 301-699-2601,” it says.

Organizations monitoring hate groups in the United States have said anti-LGBTQ organizations and individuals have for the last few years used the term “groomer” to describe their claims that LGBTQ people attempt to “groom” school children as a means of recruiting them into homosexuality and to transition.

“From what we can tell, that’s one of the kinds of dog whistle words that the anti-LGBTQ+ extremists are using this year,” said Nicholas Brown, a spokesperson for the P.G. library system. “There’s been some national news coverage about that word specifically,” he said.

In a statement released shortly before P.G. police announced they had made an arrest in the vandalism incident, the P.G. public library system condemned the vandalism and said it would not waiver from its commitment to maintaining “welcoming spaces for LGBTQ+ customers and their allies,” which some observers have suggested could have been the reason the suspect targeted the two library buildings.

“The Library is nationally recognized for its outreach and programs in support of LGBTQ+ inclusion through staff leadership and partnerships with a wide range of local government and non-profit partners,” the library system’s statement says.

Brown said he wasn’t at liberty to disclose how police linked Southerland to the vandalism incidents. But in response to a question from the Washington Blade, he said the library system has a video surveillance system in place that monitors both the interior and exterior of all its buildings.

It couldn’t immediately be determined whether Southerland had appeared in court following his arrest and whether he will be held or released pending trial.

Charles Southerland (Photo courtesy of the P.G. County Police)
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