News (USA)

Texas Senate committee advances bill to equalize protections for gay teens

AUSTIN, Texas — Parents of gay teens urged Texas lawmakers on Tuesday to give their children the same legal protection as heterosexuals when it comes to prosecuting sex crimes — pleas that helped push a key Senate committee to cast a vote bucking the state’s long history of opposing the expansion of gay rights.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted to change Texas’ “Romeo and Juliet” law that protects some heterosexual teens from being prosecuted for sex crimes and apply it to gay teens as well.

Texas state capitol in Austin. Source

Texas laws governing crimes of indecency with a child cover sexual contact with minors under the age of 17. The “Romeo and Juliet” provision sets up a legal defense if the couple is older than 14, in a consensual relationship and within three years of each other.

But since 1981, the law only has applied to couples of the opposite sex, a distinction gay rights groups say is discriminatory and wrongly criminalizes homosexuals.

The Senate panel approved a bill that removes the “opposite sex” language.

Although its chances of passing the full, Republican-controlled Senate remains a long shot, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), the sponsor of the bill and chairman of the committee, called the vote a boost for gay rights. A similar measure was considered by a House committee in a simultaneous hearing.

“It took a good-sized step today,” Whitmire said. “That’s progress.”

Texas is a state where gay rights issues have run into fierce opposition from Republican leaders. Texas bans gay marriage and despite a 2003 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down the Texas state law criminalizing gay sex, the law technically is still on the books under a notation that it is unconstitutional.

In the 10 years since that ruling, the Legislature has met five times and has not seen fit to remove it.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many states have provisions in their sex offender laws allowing some leeway in prosecuting teenage relationships. They range from exceptions to prosecution and sex offender registration to reduced levels of crimes, but Texas appears to be a rarity in its “opposite sex” requirement.

Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative group Texas Values, which recently staged a rally against gay rights at the state Capitol, questioned whether the bills are an implicit endorsement of teen sex. Saenz was the only witness to sign up against the bill in the Senate hearing.

Chuck Smith, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Texas, said the bill is not an endorsement of teen sex, but a health and fairness issue. Gay teens who contract sexually transmitted diseases may not seek treatment if they fear their partner could be prosecuted as a sex offender.

The Senate bill is SB 01316; and the House bill is HB 02403.

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