A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Putin Wrong About American Laws


Russian President Vladimir Putin was wrong when he tried to deflect questions about Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws by claiming that “in some of the states in the U.S., homosexuality remains a felony.” Some states still have sodomy laws on the books, but the Supreme Court has nullified them.

Putin made his observation about American law in response to a question from George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s “This Week” about whether gay and lesbian athletes at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, would be arrested if they engage in a protest.

Stephanopoulos: And if gay and lesbian athletes engage in some sort of protest, wear a rainbow pin or some other kind of protest, will they be free from prosecution under the propaganda law?

Putin (through translator): Acts of protest and acts of propaganda are somewhat different things. They are close, but if we were to look at them from the legal perspective, then protesting a law does not amount to propaganda of sexuality or sexual abuse of children. That’s one. Two is that I’d like to ask our colleagues, my colleagues and friends, that as they try to criticize us, they would do well to set their own house in order first. I did say, after all, and this is public knowledge, that in some of the states in the U.S., homosexuality remains a felony.

Stephanopoulos: The Supreme Court has struck those laws down.

Putin (through translator): How are they in a position to criticize us for what is a much softer, liberal approach to these issues than in their own country? I know that this isn’t something that can be easily done. This is so because there are a lot of folks in the U.S. who share the view that the legislation in their state or in their nation is appropriate, well grounded, and is in sync with the sentiment of the vast majority of the population.

There are currently 13 states that have laws on the books against sodomy, some specifically targeting homosexuals, others banning the act among all, according to Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Coalition. And in eight of those states, the crime rises to the level of a felony. See our table below for a breakdown of the laws in those states.

But as Stephanopoulos noted, the Supreme Court invalidated those laws in 2003 with a ruling in the case Lawrence v. Texas. It involved a case in which Houston police, responding to a report of a weapons disturbance, broke into a home and arrested two men they found engaged in consensual sexual relations. The men were charged with violating the state’s sodomy law. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court voted 6-3 in a sweeping rebuke of state sodomy laws.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who penned the majority opinion, wrote that the laws violated the U.S. Constitution by legislating private and consensual sexual conduct.

Kennedy, June 26, 2003: The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause [of the U.S. Constitution] gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government. … The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.

Some states, such as Montana, subsequently repealed laws that criminalized gay sex as deviant, but more than a dozen states have simply left their laws on their books — even as some state legislators have sought to repeal the laws. Nonetheless, said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, the gay rights group that represented the couple arrested in Texas, “While it is the case that some of those laws have not been cleared from the books, they can’t be enforced.”

Since 2003, there have been some “misguided attempts” to enforce those laws, Gorenberg said, but she likened those attempts to harassment and intimidation. She said that ultimately, “they are not enforceable laws after the case in Texas.”

The latest polls also show Putin is mistaken about the sentiment of “the vast majority of the population” on the issue. According to Putin, “There are a lot of folks in the U.S. who share the view that the legislation in their state or in their nation is appropriate, well grounded, and is in sync with the sentiment of the vast majority of the population.”

In the latest Gallup polls asking Americans whether they thought gay and lesbian relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal, 64 percent said they thought the relations should be legal, while just 31 percent said they should not be legal. Further, 54 percent of Americans now say they think marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.

Below is a chart of the states that still have sodomy laws on the books, whether violations are deemed misdemeanors or felonies, and whether the laws cover sodomy committed by all people or are gay-specific. The data were provided by Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Coalition. And again, all of the laws — regardless of the fact that they remain on the books — were rendered invalid by the Supreme Court.

— Robert Farley

Misdemeanor

Felony

All Sodomy

Gay-specific

Alabama

X

X

Florida

X

X

Idaho

X

X

Kansas

X

X

Louisiana

X

X

Michigan

X

X

Mississippi

X

X

North Carolina

X

X

Oklahoma

X

X

South Carolina

X

X

Texas

X

X

Utah

X

X

Virginia

X

X