Friday, March 21, 2008


There oughta be a law?

Right, how many times have you heard or said that?: “There oughta be a law!” I know I’ve said it when I’ve heard people driving around with stereo systems blasting noise that could be heard in the next county. It turns out that in that case there is a law, at least ’round these parts, and that people are occasionally given fines for violating it. Cool.

The other day, NPR had a report about the other side of the coin, where there ought not to be a law, but there is:

All Things Considered, March 18, 2008 · Massachusetts state Rep. Byron Rushing is mounting an effort to repeal out-of-date laws. He points to a 1913 law that was dusted off by former Gov. Mitt Romney to keep out-of-state gay couples from getting married in Massachusetts.
The issue is at the same time amusing, and important.

The amusing side is, of course, the array of odd laws that have been around since times when our sensibilities were different, or that developed ad hoc, without much regard to their full effect. From the audio:

Rushing has found 20 of these sort of legal dustballs that he wants to repeal. There’s a law that makes it illegal to be a Communist, and another that would have you arrested for “engaging in immoral conduct in a restaurant or tavern.” And there are countless other crimes in between.
Some of the other laws he wants to get rid of? Well, in Massachusetts...
  • can spend a year in jail for “cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost.”
  • mayn’t have a tattoo unless it was done by a qualified physician.
  •’s illegal to use birth control unless you’re married.
  •’s against the law to spit on the ground.
Of course, lots of people think it should be against the law to spit.
State Representative Byron Rushing says he’s got a slew of email from fans of the anti-spitting law, but he still thinks it sets a bad precedent to make something illegal just because it’s seen as disgusting. He admits he’s having trouble getting some to take his legislation seriously, but he insists repealing these laws is serious business.

Rushing: “What happens when you get some over-eager prosecutor who decides, well, I’m gonna use this... all right? So we have to be very careful about leaving those crazy laws on the books.”

Sound far-fetched? Witness: just a few years ago, a nearly century-old law that was meant to prevent interracial marriages was dusted off and used by former Governor Mitt Romney to block gay couples from out of state from marrying here. Rushing is still kicking himself for not getting to the housecleaning sooner.

Rushing: “If we had been doing what we’re doing, six years ago, we would simply have said to people, oh, that’s a racist bill, we should just get rid of that law. And everybody would have done it, boom, it would have been gone. And all the people could have been coming and getting married, and this... it would have been very, very different.”

Repealing these old laws, Rushing says, is as high-stakes as anything he’s done. The thing is, he says, you just might know why until it’s too late.

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