Murder By Initiative

Ballot Proposal to Kill Gays Sets Off Free-Speech Debate

In 1911, when Governor Hiram Johnson unveiled California’s modern ballot initiative system, he said the direct democracy plan would “arm the people to protect themselves hereafter.”

Memo to the future: He didn’t mean it literally.

Jerry Roberts

More than 100 years later, an obscure Orange County lawyer has triggered a far-flung debate, pitting civil rights supporters versus First Amendment purists, with his own proposed initiative, calling for gay people to be executed. You know, for being gay.

Titling the monstrous measure the Sodomite Suppression Act, Huntington Beach attorney Matt McLaughlin wants the following language added to Title III of the California Penal Code (“Of Offenses Against the Sovereignty of the State”):

a) The abominable crime against nature known as buggery, called also sodomy, is a monstrous evil that Almighty God, giver of freedom and liberty, commands us to suppress on pain of our utter destruction even as he overthrew Sodom and Gomorrha.

b) Seeing that it is better that offenders should die rather than that all of us should be killed by God’s just wrath against us for the folly of tolerating-wickedness in our midst, the People of California wisely command, in the fear of God, that any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.

That’s “Gomorrha”[sic]. Also, sick.

CALIFORNIA SHARIA: At first glance, McLaughlin’s 422-word measure, which would require 365,880 signatures to make the ballot, was simply the ranting of a whack-job stubbornly stuck between Leviticus 18-20. McLaughlin, who has ducked all media inquiries, a few years ago made a similar try at imposing his special brand of Orange County sharia: A plan to mandate Bible study in public schools died soon after he paid the $200 that is the only requirement for submitting an initiative.

However, with national attention focused on the raging controversy over anti-gay discrimination in Indiana, where the legislature and governor just enacted a law allowing businesses to refuse to serve gays, advocates for gay and other civil rights chose to highlight the kill-the-gays plan, no matter how marginal.

It was not so long ago that evangelical Christians used initiatives to try to fire gay teachers ​— ​Proposition 6 in 1978 ​— ​and to identify publicly and quarantine anyone who tested positive for the AIDS virus ​— ​Props. 64, 69, and 102 in the 1980s.

So activists quickly collected 100,000 signatures demanding the California Bar Association lift McLaughlin’s license to practice law; state lawmakers introduced bills to make it more difficult to qualify and pass initiatives; and pressure mounted on Attorney General ​— ​and U.S. Senate candidate ​— ​Kamala Harris to stop the gay-execution measure from being circulated.

The initiative process, however, is subject to few restrictions by elected officials. Seeking a Solomonic solution ​— ​if not a Pontius Pilate cop-out ​— ​to a legal and political conundrum, Harris has asked a Superior Court judge to release her from her duty of assigning a formal “title and summary” to the measure.

“This proposal not only threatens public safety, it is patently unconstitutional, utterly reprehensible, and has no place in a civil society,” said Harris. “If the Court does not grant this relief, my office will be forced to issue a title and summary for a proposal that seeks to legalize discrimination and vigilantism.”  

THOUGHT POLICE: At the same time, free-speech proponents warn of slippery-slope dangers of the state exercising expanded control over thoughts and language, no matter how reprehensible.

“It’s not the job of a state official to block an unpopular ballot measure,” opined the Los Angeles Times, “that’s the job of voters,” a view echoed by esteemed Sacramento columnist Dan Walters: “It’s easy to defend free speech when it’s politically correct, or at least seems reasonable. It’s when words anger many people, perhaps just about everyone, that the right is seriously tested.”

Perhaps the most proportionate response came from Charlotte Laws, a PhD stand-up comic from Ventura, who forked out her own $200 to file a counter-initiative called the Intolerant Jackass Act.

“Any person, herein known as an ‘Intolerant Jackass,’ who brings forth a ballot measure that suggests the killing of gays and/or lesbians,” it reads, “shall be required to attend sensitivity training for at least three (3) hours per month for twelve (12) consecutive months … [and] donate $5000 to a pro-gay or pro-lesbian organization.”

We vote for that.


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