A bill on California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk that would reduce criminal penalties for sexual activity between gay teens and young adults has ignited an uproar over sex offenses and LGBTQ rights.
Senate Bill 145, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, would eliminate automatic sex-offender registration for adults who have voluntary oral or anal sex with 14-to-17-year-olds when the offender is within 10 years of the age of the teenager involved.
Judges already have discretion under state law to decide at sentencing whether to register an offender who has uncoerced vaginal sex with a teenage girl aged 14 to 17 within the 10-year age gap.
“Senate Bill 145 is an anti-discrimination law,” Mr. Wiener, a San Francisco legislator who is openly gay, told ABC10. “It ends discrimination against LGBTQ people on the sex offender registry.”
He pushed back against what he called a “massive misinformation campaign” amid escalating national outrage on the right.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, tweeted Thursday that California Democrats “believe we need more adults having sex with children, and when they do, they shouldn’t register as sex offenders.”
Equality California swung back by accusing him of “spreading QAnon’s dangerous lies and conspiracy theories.”
While Democrats argue that the current law treats homosexual offenders more harshly than heterosexuals, Republicans say that relaxing penalties on statutory rape sends a dangerous signal at a time when California is struggling with rising child sex trafficking.
Under SB 145, automatic sex-offender registration would no longer apply to those convicted of “non-forcible sodomy with a minor, oral copulation with a minor, or sexual penetration with a minor,” according to the bill summary.
“I mean, this is unbelievable. What kind of a bill is this?” said Republican Assemblyman Steven Choi during Monday’s floor debate. “What kind of laws are we trying to enact by this body? This is intolerable.”
Both chambers gave final approval to the legislation Monday shortly before adjourning. Mr. Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the bill, which passed both houses with no Republican votes.
Democrats emphasized that statutory rape remains illegal under the bill —California’s age of consent is 18 — and that adult offenders, both heterosexual and homosexual, would still be subject to felony charges for violating state law for having sex with minors.
“There’s a lot of hyperbole and a lot of emotions over it that are getting in the way of us seeing that this is purely an equity issue,” said Assemblymember Laura Friedman. “It is not decriminalizing statutory rape by any extent.”
Democratic support was not unanimous. Crossing party lines to join Republicans in opposing the bill was Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, even though she said she agreed with the “equity argument” made by Equality California and other LGBT groups.
“Any sex is sex. I don’t care who it’s between or what sex act it is,” she said on the Assembly floor. “That being said, I cannot in my mind as a mother understand how sex between a 24-year-old and a 14-year-old could ever be consensual, how it could ever not be a registerable offense.”
Ms. Gonzalez, who chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee, suggested that the legislature move in the other direction, making the law equitable by removing a judge’s discretion in cases of vaginal intercourse.
“I’ve asked everybody who has sat in my committee for two years, amend both sides of the bill,” said Ms. Gonzalez. “Amend the current situation where one sex act between a 24-year-old and 14-year-old might be considered consensual by a judge, and amend this so we can have equity, because it should be equitable.”
Other Democrats said her suggestion was another question for another time.
“If there is a problem with judges ruling that sex between a 25-year-old and a 14-year-old of any gender is allowable, we should probably take a look at that law, and changing that law, but that is not the question that is in front of us now,” said Ms. Friedman.
Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager said that the “10-year cap is actually consistent with current law,” and that “if folks are challenged with that, I actually urge in the next legislative session to do a bill that focuses on that 10-year gap, but that is not this bill.”
The legislation is supported by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office; the California District Attorney’s Association, and the California Police Chiefs Association, in part because it would allow the state to stop “wasting resources monitoring an 18-year-old who’s on the registry because he had sex with his 17-year-old boyfriend,” said Ms. Friedman.
Among those urging Mr. Newsom to veto the bill are the California Republican Party and the California Family Council.
Ms. Gonzalez urged lawmakers to scrap the bill and take a look at the sex-offender law in its entirety.
“As much as I want to create an equitable situation, I think this needs to go back to the drawing board,” she said. “I think we need to take up both portions of the code and make a determination.”