AUSTIN (AP) — In Texas, where attempts to expand gay rights have run into strong opposition from Republican leaders, state lawmakers are considering new legal protections for sexually active gay teens.
Sexual contact with minors under the age of 17 is a crime of indecency under Texas law. But a "Romeo and Juliet" defense protects teen couples from prosecution as long as they are in a consensual relationship, both over 14 and within three years of age of each other.
But the law specifically states that this protection is available only to couples of the opposite sex.
Bills scheduled for public hearings Tuesday in House and Senate committees remove that language to give same-sex teen couples the same protection as their heterosexual peers.
Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and longtime chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice committee, said he filed his bill out of a "sense of fairness." If a couple meets the age and consent criteria, there should be no difference in the law based on their sexual orientation, he said.
Rep. Mary Gonzalez, an El Paso Democrat, is the author of the House bill.
"In this day and time, I recognize that people of the same sex become partners," Whitmire said. "I think there's a recognition nationally that we could do better (in) how we treat people that have same-sex relationships."
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.
Equality Texas, a gay rights group, is working with Gonzalez and Whitmire to change the law. Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said he doesn't know of any cases in which gay teenage couples have been prosecuted, but called the distinction that favors heterosexual couples unfair and said it should be removed.
"Law enforcement does not get involved in instances like this if they are of opposite sex," Smith said. "It should be no different" if the couple is gay.
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 a way for "more kids that are under 18 (to) have sex?"
Saenz called the bills "part of the gay community's agenda," but declined further comment.
Gay teens who contract a sexually transmitted disease may be deterred from seeking treatment under the law as it stands, for fear of their partner being prosecuted and forced to register as a sex offender, Smith said.
"We are not advocating teen sex. No one is advocating teen sex," Smith said.
Whitmire is confident his committee will approve the change. Getting it passed by the full Senate and House is much more uncertain. The state's Republican leadership, notably Gov. Rick Perry, has been hostile to gay rights in the past.
Texas has a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. And despite a 2003 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down the 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 in regular session five times and has not seen fit to remove it.
The national debate over the question of gay marriage is forcing a broader conversation about gay rights in general, Whitmire said.
"Hopefully we'll have a grown-up discussion about it," Whitmire said. "Let's be fair and reasonable."
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