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Friday, May 24, 2013

Romeo and Juliet Laws in the 21st Century

In the 20th Century, a greater effort was made by society to protect children under the age of 18 from sexual abuse. At the same time, it was recognized high school students were likely to engage in intimate relationships with each other, and those relationships could potentially become consenting relationships between someone 18 year old and someone who is under 18. Most states recognized this unique relationship and sought to protect both students through what became known as Romeo and Juliet Laws.

Romeo and Juliet laws, after Shakespeare’s tragic teenage lovers, were designed to protect seniors and underclassman who engaged in intimate relationships, from prosecution for their relationship. It makes sense, as many Seniors have relationships with underclassman. Someone who technically reaches the age of 18, yet is still a senior in high school, who has been in an intimate relationship, doesn't suddenly become an adult predator just because they happened to turn 18 that year; Furthermore, in some states changes in the laws governing consensual sex between minors or an adult 18 years of age and a minor 14-16 years of age have acknowledged that this intimacy is not the same as molestation. The new, Romeo and Juliet laws, attempt to correct overly harsh penalties and prison terms meted out over the years. This means a senior who has a relationship with an underclassman, may not technically be in violation of the law, even in the case where one party is 18 and the other is 15.

Now, with that being said, when it comes to same-sex relationships, oftentimes states refuse to recognize the Romeo and Juliet status, due to the sexual orientation of the participants. As of 2007,
Florida has a Romeo and Juliet law; However, Kaitlyn Hunt, an 18-year-old senior at a Florida high school is facing felony charges for her relationship with a 15-year-old girl. The relationship began when Kate was 17-year-old. The district attorney's office has repeatedly claimed that sexual orientation has nothing to do with this case, yet we can clearly see Kate falls within the age range to qualify for the Romeo and Juliet law, yet she is still facing statutory rape charges. Why is that? The fact of the matter is, because she is a homosexual. The younger girl’s parents were upset to find their daughter engaged in a homosexual relationship, and waited until Kate turned 18 to press charges. Given the fact Florida is supposed to have laws preventing prosecution for teenagers in Kate's situation, and yet the state is moving forward with prosecution anyway, clearly shows the political and homophobic drive behind these legal proceedings.

A petition has been created by Kate's father, seeking to
stop the Hate, Free Kate. The petition details how the consensual relationship between two underage teenagers was against the wishes of the younger child's parents, how those parents accused Kate of turning their daughter gay, and how those parents only sought charges once Kate had turned 18. I think this entire situation serves as a reminder of how equal rights are not equal in this country. In a decade where we've seen the most support for same-sex marriage than at any other time in our societies history, we often forget about these southern bastions of bigotry and hatred where discrimination still runs rampant and a person’s sexuality can mean the difference between freedom or persecution. The officials in Florida should be ashamed of themselves. This situation serves as an example of the danger of States rights run amok. States should be able to retain some of their independence; However, when a State or States shows a repeated lack of equality for their citizens, when laws mean different things based on skin color or sexual orientation, the Federal government has a responsibility to step in and protect the rights of individuals from the tyranny of the State. Lately, Florida has shown itself to be a bastion of bigotry, homophobia, and racism; Therefore, it is time we call upon Federal officials to step in and ensure equal justice under the law for those who are discriminated against or oppressed.

This isn't about Special rights, it is about Equal rights. A modicum of common-sense, judicial oversight in each case, and the deference toward the judge meriting out penalties, could prevent situations like this from ruining Kate's life. This could also be a double-edged sword as states like, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas have shown repeatedly, over the years, to litigate and sentence people differently, based on Sexual Orientation, Race, as well as other discriminating factors. Still the fact remains a black and white approach to the very nuanced reality of teenage relationships, which transcend the legal age of adulthood should be decided on their individual merits. From what has been revealed in this particular situation, while Kate is technically in violation of the law, there are also mitigating factors, which make this a case that should have never passed a grand jury indictment, such as; Length of the relationship between both teens, the proximity in age between both girls, the fact that sexual orientation IS playing a role in the parents desire to seek criminal charges based on their own behavior and statements, as well as the express testimony of both girls, which admit the relationship began when one was 17 and one was 15 and it had always been consensual; Furthermore, we could also look at the character and background of both Kate and the younger girl, to help determine whether or not this is a case of teenage love, or a young adult predator. When you take each of these particular factors into account, we can clearly see this is a misuse and abuse of the justice system, when there are real criminals on the streets and in corporate offices waiting to be prosecuted


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