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A Debriefing in Virginia

Thursday, February 10, 2005; Page A22

DEL. ALGIE T. Howell Jr., a Virginia Democrat, visited a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court not long ago and apparently came away shaken. It wasn't the crime, abuse, depravity and suffering that got to Mr. Howell. It was the pants. Or rather the underpants.

It seems that Mr. Howell, a 67-year-old Air Force veteran and past PTA president from Norfolk, hadn't kept abreast of youth fashion -- specifically the craze for pants that ride so low on the hips as to expose a strip of boxers or briefs. His revulsion at glimpsing the offending fabric was so profound that he did what lawmakers tend to do: He wrote a bill. According to Mr. Howell's legislation, a $50 fine would be the price for anyone who "wears and displays his below-waist undergarments . . . in a lewd or indecent manner." "This bill is simply about respect for others," Mr. Howell said. "It has to do with character building."

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Put aside the risk that Mr. Howell's crotchety proposal may induce some young Virginians to forgo underwear completely (no exposed briefs, no $50 fine!). The real problem with his silly bill is that it is unconstitutional, as Virginia would be hard-pressed to convince a court that it has a compelling interest in establishing what amounts to a statewide dress code. That's exactly what a legislative staff attorney advised members of the House Courts of Justice Committee. Undeterred, the committee passed the bill, and the full House gave it preliminary approval on a voice vote. It will probably be up to the state Senate to kill the bill -- and save Virginia from becoming the nation's laughingstock.

Lawmakers have been known to appear in the Virginia House of Delegates in striped ties and plaid jackets. Shocking, yes, but we would oppose fining them. On the floor of the House, one of Mr. Howell's Democratic colleagues, Lionell Spruill Sr. of Chesapeake, surveyed several lawmakers, pointing out that back in the day, their tastes ran to bell-bottoms, miniskirts and -- gasp! -- long hair for men. His point: Today's youth deserve the same leeway with fashion faux pas.

"Please let these kids express themselves," the sensible Mr. Spruill said. "It'll pass on. Don't fine these young kids. You had your time, let them have their time."

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