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Sodomy laws in the United States, which outlawed a variety of sexual acts, were historically universal. While they often targeted sexual acts between persons of the same sex, many statutes employed definitions broad enough to outlaw certain sexual acts between persons of different sexes as well, sometimes even acts between married persons.
Through the 20th century, the gradual liberalization of American sexual morals led to the elimination of sodomy laws in most states. During this time, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986. However, in 2003 the Supreme Court reversed the decision with Lawrence v. Texas, invalidating sodomy laws in the remaining 14 states (Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia).
In 1778, Thomas Jefferson wrote a law in Virginia which contained a punishment of castration for men who engage in sodomy, however, what was intended by Jefferson as a liberalization of the sodomy laws in Virginia at that time was rejected by the Virginia Legislature, which continued to prescribe death as the maximum penalty for the crime of sodomy in that state.
Prior to 1962, sodomy was a felony in every state, punished by a lengthy term of imprisonment and/or hard labor. In that year, the Model Penal Code (MPC) — developed by the American Law Institute to promote uniformity among the states as they modernized their statutes — struck a compromise that removed consensual sodomy from its criminal code while making it a crime to solicit for sodomy. In 1962 Illinois adopted the recommendations of the Model Penal Code and thus became the first state to remove criminal penalties for consensual sodomy from its criminal code, almost a decade before any other state. Over the years, many of the states that did not repeal their sodomy laws had enacted legislation reducing the penalty. At the time of the Lawrence decision in 2003, the penalty for violating a sodomy law varied very widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction among those states retaining their sodomy laws. The harshest penalties were in Idaho, where a person convicted of sodomy could earn a life sentence. Michigan followed, with a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment while repeat offenders got life. This was later invalidated in the case of Michigan Organization for Human Rights v. Kelly (1987).
By 2002, 36 states had repealed their sodomy laws or their courts had overturned them. By the time of the 2003 Supreme Court decision, the laws in most states were no longer enforced or were enforced very selectively. The continued existence of these rarely enforced laws on the statute books, however, was often cited as justification for discrimination against gay men and lesbians.
On June 26, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision in Lawrence v. Texas struck down the Texas same-sex sodomy law, ruling that this private sexual conduct is protected by the liberty rights implicit in the due process clause of the United States Constitution. This decision invalidated all state sodomy laws insofar as they applied to noncommercial conduct in private between consenting civilians and reversed the Court's 1986 ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick that upheld Georgia's sodomy law.
Before that 2003 ruling, 27 states, the District of Columbia, and 4 territories had repealed their sodomy laws by legislative action, 9 states had had them overturned or invalidated by state court action, 4 states still had same-sex sodomy laws, and 10 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. military had laws applying to all regardless of gender. In 2005 Puerto Rico repealed its sodomy law, in 2006 Missouri repealed its law against "homosexual conduct", and in 2013 Montana removed "sexual contact or sexual intercourse between two persons of the same sex" from its definition of deviate sexual conduct. Louisiana's statutes still include "unnatural carnal copulation by a human being with another of the same sex" in their definition of "crimes against nature", punishable (in theory) by a fine of up to $2,000 or a prison sentence of up to five years, with or without hard labor; however, this section was further mooted by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 2005 in light of the Lawrence decision. Three states have yet to repeal such laws: Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
The table indicates which acts or groups were covered under each sodomy law, as pertaining to consenting adults. It also indicates the year and method of repeal or strikedown.
|Oral sex||Anal sex||Homosexual|
As for the U.S. Armed Forces, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has ruled that the Lawrence v. Texas decision applies to Article 125, severely narrowing the previous ban on sodomy. In both United States v. Stirewalt and United States v. Marcum, the court ruled that the "conduct [consensual sodomy] falls within the liberty interest identified by the Supreme Court," but went on to say that despite the application of Lawrence to the military, Article 125 can still be upheld in cases where there are "factors unique to the military environment" that would place the conduct "outside any protected liberty interest recognized in Lawrence." Examples of such factors include rape, fraternization, public sexual behavior, or any other factors that would adversely affect good order and discipline. Convictions for consensual sodomy have been overturned in military courts under Lawrence in both United States v. Meno and United States v. Bullock.
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