The D.C. City Council voted yesterday to keep the age of consent for sexual relations at 16 for girls, following nearly a week of emotionally charged debate over the issue.
The council rejected a variety of proposals to lower that age of consent or lessen the penalties for violating it. The council members, in an often rancorous meeting in the packed council chamber, decided that Washington's backbone, churchgoing community was not yet ready for any liberalization of the law now on the books.
The current law prohibits sex with any girl under 16 years old, but does not say anything about when boys may legally engage in sex.
Proposals to change that law and allow consenting children of about the same age to legally have sex with each other had originally been supported by six of the 13 council members and approved unanimously by a council committee three weeks ago. But those proposals drew a storm of protest from some D.C. residents and church and community leaders, who contended the change would be tantamount to an official council stamp of approval for adolescent sex.
The council members quickly back-pedaled and agreed to let the current age of consent stand, while giving tentative approval to a package of sweeping reforms of the city's sex laws. The changes are generally aimed at broadening penalties for sexual assaults. The council rejected the proposed age-of-consent change, and then approved the remainder of the bill, on separate voice votes.
"What the bill originally proposed [on the age of consent] is out of touch with the moral instincts and social desires of the community," said Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At-Large).
"Our job as legislators and representatives is to respect the values of our community," said Council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the principal sponsor of the original proposal. It would have legalized sexual relations between children 12 and older if one of the partners was not more than four years older than the other.
Several council members said they feared that lowering the age of consent would endanger passage of the entire bill. The council decided not to tamper with the current age of consent after an hour of debate under the glare of five television camera lights and with a crowd of hostile spectators shouting "Immorality!" and slogans exhorting them to leave the law alone.
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) urged her colleagues to leave the current statutory rape law intact and support the rest of the bill. "This is the kind of measure that requires some additional public comment," Jarvis said to the applause from the audience.
"It isn't the bomb that kills you, it's the fallout," Jarvis said. "There is a lot of fallout from this issue. It isn't the fact that kills you, it's the perception."
Several clergymen attended yesterday's meeting, along with a Christian author handing out pamphlets entitled "The Wrongness of Consentual Nonmarital Sex" and a television crew from the Christian Broadcasting Network that was filming the council session as part of a 13-part documentary series on child pornography.
One unidentified woman was dragged from the council chamber by District Building police, on the orders of Council Chairman Arrington L. Dixon, after the woman ignored Dixon's warning against audience outbursts. She had shouted, "We declare you all unready to discuss this issue."
After the meeting, opponents of the child consentual sex provision announced that they were satisfied that the current statutory rape law would stand. But some clergymen quickly announced that before the bill comes up for final approval on July 14, they will try to focus public attention on other sections of the bill that they find objectionable.
The Rev. Andrew Fowler, executive secretary of the Committee of 100 Ministers, said, "That bill puts the reins on the neck of lust and tells everybody to just go to town. The Bible condemns adultery. The Bible condemns homosexuality. The Bible condemns sodomy. The Bible condemns every one of those things and this bill legalizes every one of those things."
The debate on the children's sexual consent provision began with Clarke angrily denouncing media reports as misinterpreting the council's intention. "The purpose of this bill is no more to encourage teen-age sex any more than Mayor Marion Barry has been shot or than Thomas Dewey has been elected president in 1948," Clarke said.
On the voice vote approving the entire bill, Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) was the only council member who asked to be recorded as voting "no." Council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At-Large) was the only one recorded as voting "no" on the amendment restoring the current age of consent. Council members Jerry A. Moore (R-At-Large), who is in Israel, and John L. Ray (D-At-Large), who is on his honeymoon, were absent.