Politics & Government

Jail time for adultery? SC House panel votes to repeal sex laws

S.C. State House
S.C. State House tglantz@thestate.com

South Carolina still has laws that criminalize premarital sex, adultery and seducing a woman with the promise of marriage.

Other laws make it illegal to work on Sundays, play pinball under age 18 or challenge someone to a duel.

However, S.C. lawmakers moved Tuesday to repeal those laws and others, some dating back more than 300 years.

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved punting the laws. The bill still needs approval from the full House and the Senate before the laws are repealed for good.

State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, a Georgetown Republican who sponsored the bill, said legislators have kept piling new laws on top of old ones. “The average person breaks three felonies a day and unknowingly does it,” Goldfinch said.

Goldfinch said he started with a small group of laws brought to his attention by House staff. Some state laws have become so outdated that they are impossible to police.

“It’s not good to have laws you don’t enforce,” said House Judiciary chairman Greg Delleney, a Chester Republican who does not recall a similar bill being considered during his 25 years in the Legislature.

Making premarital sex a crime is no longer accepted in modern times. But, in South Carolina, sex between people who are unmarried or married to others carries penalties of up to a year in prison and $500 in fines. The law dates back to 1880.

The language in another law that legislators want to banish contains language some might find sexist.

A defendant accused of seducing a woman with a promise of marriage cannot be convicted on the testimony of the woman only or if the woman, as the law states, “was at the time of the alleged offense lewd and unchaste.” Still, a man convicted of the century-old crime can serve up to a year in prison and pay a fine. (Defendants could put a conviction on hold by offering to marry the victim.)

However, lawmakers do not propose to remove a sexually based law that has been overturned by the nation’s top court.

Sodomy — referred to in state law as “buggery, whether with mankind or with beast” — remains a felony in South Carolina, punishable by five years in prison and a fine of at least $500. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003.

Goldfinch said he would consider another bill to repeal the sodomy law.

“I am a Christian conservative,” he said. “But ... we’ve come a long ways in the last 50 years, and what we as Christians believe now — I certainly believe — is that government has no role in the bedroom. I may morally disagree with what’s going on in the bedroom, but it’s not the government’s place to be in anybody’s bedroom.”

End of Sunday ‘blue laws’?

The state also still has laws limiting what people can do on Sundays that the House panel proposes repealing.

It’s illegal, for instance, to operate a dance hall or sell furniture, most clothing and appliances on a Sunday. The fine for a first offense for operating a dance hall on a Sunday can be as little as $10.

The language on some of the laws is dated. The Sunday sales ban includes “phonographs, record players or so-called hi-fi or stereo sets.”

Some of the laws that legislators want to repeal go back to the Colonial period.

A ban on working on Sundays dates back to 1691, soon after South Carolina was settled.

Goldfinch said repealing the Sunday “blue laws” and outdated sex laws could prevent them from being abused.

“There’s the distinct possibility for a vindictive sheriff, a vindictive police chief or a vindictive solicitor to use some of these laws on the books ... against a political opponent,” he said. “If it’s on the books, what’s a judge to do?”

Legislators also want to repeal anti-dueling laws.Now, defendants found guilty of challenging people to fights with “a sword, pistol, rapier or any other deadly weapon” can spend up to two years in prison and be barred from holding elected office.

Some of the bans are a bit newer. A law barring minors from playing pinball goes back to early in the 20th century, when the machines were used for gambling.

Goldfinch, an attorney, said he plans to continue introducing bills to repeal antiquated laws. “We just need to start going through them one by one by one and really decongesting the code.”

Repealing outdated SC laws

Here are S.C. laws that would be repealed if a state House bill is passed this year:

‘Seduction under promise of marriage’

What it says: A man over age 16 who “by means of deception and promise of marriage seduces an unmarried woman”

Penalty: Up to a year in prison and a fine at the court’s discretion

‘Adultery or fornication’

What it says: A married man and woman who are not married to each other or a man and a woman who are unmarried cannot have sexual relations

Penalty: Six months to a year in prison and fines of between $100 and $500

‘Playing pinball’

What it says: Illegal for anyone under age 18 to play a pinball machine

Penalty: None listed

‘Sending or accepting challenge to fight’

What it says: Cannot challenge or accept a challenge to a fight with a sword, pistol, rapier or any other deadly weapon

Penalty: Up to two years in prison, and cannot vote or hold elected office

‘Carrying or delivering challenge’

What it says: Cannot deliver in writing or verbally any challenge, or be present to assist a duel

Penalty: Up to two years in prison, fine between $500 and $1,000, and cannot hold elected office

‘Adventuring in lotteries’

What it says: Cannot run your own lottery

Penalty: $100 for each offense

‘Operation on Sunday forbidden’

What it says: Cannot operate a dancing hall on Sunday

Penalty: Fine between $10 and $50 for a first offense; $50 and $100 or 30 days in prison for a second offense

‘Unlawful to work on Sunday’

What it says: Illegal for people to work or open a business on Sunday “excepting work of necessity or charity”

Penalty: Fine between $50 and $250 for a first offense; $100 and $500 for a second offense; and $500 for each subsequent offense

Note: An exception was made in Charleston County for Jewish residents who do not work on the Sabbath.

‘Sale of certain items on Sunday prohibited’

What it says: Cannot sell: clothing (except for swimwear, novelties, souvenirs or undergarments); housewares; home and office furnishings; appliances; building supplies; jewelry; cars; television sets; and “phonographs, record players or so-called hi-fi or stereo sets.”

Penalty: Fine between $50 and $250 for a first offense; $100 and $500 for a second offense; and $500 for each subsequent offense.

‘Railroads shall not remove from towns of more than 500’

What it says: No railroad shall move its railway from any incorporated town of more than 500 people

Penalty: None listed