Virginia's proposed marital rape law, hailed this week as one of the most progressive in the nation, was denounced today by a feminist group that called it an "atrocity" filled with "viciously antiwomen provisions."
The National Women's Political Caucus of Virginia said the bill approved by the House imposes lighter penalties for sexual assault cases involving married persons and unfairly sets a 10-day deadline for married persons to report rape or sexual assaults.
"The harm outweighs the good" in the bill, said Elise Heinz, a member of the caucus and a former delegate from Arlington.
Suporters of the bill, which is pending in the Senate, sharply disputed the criticisms today and said the bill is a serious attempt to fill a void in the law.
The bill's main provision, proposed after two restrictive state Supreme Court rulings and a year's study by a legislative commission, defines spousal rape as a crime whether a couple is living together or separated.
The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in two cases, including one from Fairfax County, that under Virginia law a spouse could not be accused of rape unless the spouses were living apart.
Heinz and Marianne W. Fowler, chairwoman of the state chapter of the caucus, said the bill corrects that problem, but that the 10-day reporting deadline is too strict.
"No other crime" has such a deadline, they said, arguing that a provision to allow an extension for spouses who are physically impaired or detained from making a formal report is too vague.
The women also complained that the bill is too lenient in providing opportunities for offenders to receive counseling rather than being prosecuted in the courts and imprisoned.
"This is a good bill, but it is buried among viciously antiwomen provisions," said Fowler. "We are alerting the senators to its flaws so they can convert this atrocity into a valuable piece of legislation."
H. Lane Kneedler, former associate dean of the University of Virginia law school and now chief deputy state attorney general, said the rape commission on which he served was split over the 10-day deadline, but said the compromise was reached to help write a bill for this session of the legislature.
Kneedler, who said he was not speaking for the attorney general's office, also said it was unclear whether the state's current sexual assault law, which includes provisions on forcible sodomy, applies to married persons.
Kneedler suggested there may be minor revisions of the bill in the Senate, where it is pending in committee, but defended the overall measure.
The proposed legislation is more expansive than what the court addressed, Kneedler said. "We wanted the bill to go much farther. . . . "
The criticism by the caucus came as a surprise. Members of the caucus were present, but did not complain, when the bill passed the House Sunday.
Under current law, persons accused of rape can be sentenced to five to 20 years in prison. The proposed bill would extend that punishment to a spouse convicted of rape if the couple is living apart or if serious physical injury occurs.
The proposed bill also would include lesser penalties for the charge of sexual assault if the couple is living together and no serious physical injury occurs.