AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- 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 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.
Elizabeth and Michael Hussey, members of the Houston-area chapter of the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, told the Senate panel their 17-year-old son deserves to be equal under the law.
"I'm a Texas Republican, a disabled veteran who served our country at personal sacrifice, who was doing that for freedoms and liberties of all Americans," Michael Hussey said. "We don't want anything special for him, we want equal ... I served not for certain groups, certain people, but for everybody."
Elizabeth Hussey said that just like parents of straight kids, she tries to give her son guidance on sex and other mature issues.
"His sexuality doesn't change how I parent him, but the law stands in my way sometimes," she said. "It's hard as mother to say I want you to wait to have sex until you get married. He can't get married. The law also says if he does have sex, he could go to prison as a sex offender? I want them to work with me here."
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.
Amy Manuel told lawmakers she has two children, one straight, one gay, who should be equal under the law.
"I treat them both equally," Manuel said. "The law says because of who your friends are, who you love, one child gets treated one way and the other child gets treated completely different."
The Senate bill is: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=SB01316
The House bill is: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=HB02403
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