- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

RICHMOND The Virginia House of Delegates gave tentative approval yesterday to changing sodomy from a felony to a misdemeanor offense.

It is the first time in several tries that a bill reducing the penalty for sodomy has made it out of the House Courts of Justice committee. For at least the past six years, Delegate L. Karen Darner, Arlington Democrat, has introduced a bill to decriminalize sodomy, but the committee has always failed to act on it.

This year, she and the bill's other proponents used a different strategy: Instead of trying to legalize sodomy, which includes anal and oral sex, they changed it from a class-6 felony to a class-4 misdemeanor. That brings a maximum punishment of $250, instead of the one to five years in prison and $2,500 fine for the felony. The sodomy law has withstood several court challenges.

"Right now it is a felony for the private act of love that occurs between two consenting adults every day in the commonwealth," Miss Darner said.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican and one of those who voted for this year's measure in committee, said it offered an acceptable middle ground.

"We didn't want to make it legal," he said. But the change, he said, does alter an inequity in law, by which sodomy with one's spouse is more harsh than with a prostitute, which is only a class-1 misdemeanor.

The bill passed the tentative vote by voice yesterday, with a vocal minority voting "No," but nobody called for a roll-call vote. That will come today, and should be about as close as the 12-11 committee vote.

On a day when the slightest of changes to city charters drew a half-hour debate, only Miss Darner spoke on this bill and only one lawmaker, Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, asked her questions.

Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat and one of the committee members who has always been a supporter of legalizing sodomy, said supporters had lobbied with some Republicans to get their OK to the compromise in committee.

Some delegates wondered whether relaxing the law wouldn't make prosecutors more likely to charge someone, now that the penalty is no longer a felony. But Miss Darner said commonwealth's attorneys told her that would not happen.

Miss Darner said a woman with disabilities testified in committee that the bill makes her sex life felonious.

"That's absurd," Miss Darner said.

She said she would still like to see the law relaxed so sodomy between adults is altogether legal, but this step is important because someone found guilty wouldn't be a felon and so could keep his or her voting rights, among other rights.

Forcible sodomy would continue to have a much harsher penalty under state law, and the the bill keeps harsher penalties for sodomy with animals or family members.

If the bill survives today's roll-call vote it still has to go to the Senate and then on to the governor.

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