The Bulletin

Virginia lawmakers vote to repeal bans on cussing and fornicating, but draw line at spitting

By: - February 19, 2020 3:16 pm
Virginia State Capitol

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Legislation to repeal arcane bans on cussing (in public) and fornicating (in private, among consenting adults) cleared the General Assembly on Wednesday and will head to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for review.

But the Senate voted down a third measure to repeal a ban on spitting in public places following an extended debate that alternately drew disgust, laughter and unintentional sexual innuendo.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, touched things off with a plea for lawmakers to reconsider an earlier, unanimous vote in favor of the repeal, arguing there was a thin line between the orderly society we enjoy now and one where public walkways and floors are covered it spittle and phlegm.

“So what we can do now in a public place, including this building is, if you don’t like something, just spit on the floor,” Morrissey said. “Spit on the Thomas Jefferson marble walkway. Spit on the balcony. Spit off the balcony.”

Several senators agreed. Others wondered about the public health implications. Pressed on the issue, the chamber’s resident physician, Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, said spit does, indeed, pose a health risk and can transmit viruses.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, asked Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County and a practicing dentist, for a second opinion.

“I work in the world of spit, and I think it should be sucked out, not spit out,” he said.

The chamber broke into laughter. Pillion, picking up on the potential dual meaning of his words, added, “a dental instrument. Clean it up guys.”

Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, followed up with a speech about the special hazard spit poses in his district, where many beach visitors are barefoot. “We’ve got the largest boardwalk in the state of Virginia,” he observed.

When a vote was finally called, the bill failed 14-21.

The Senate was more open to legislation repealing bans on fornication and swearing.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, gleefully asked Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, if “he could recite for us the exact words that would now be legalized.”

When Edwards, who was charged with presenting the legislation as chair of the committee that vetted it, declined, Stanley offered another proposal: “If I say a word will he agree or disagree that this word is now (legal)?”

Edwards said he would, but preferred not to.

Seven senators ultimately opposed repealing the swearing ban (one Democrat and six Republicans). An eighth, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, abstained, indicating that she had a conflict of interest.

All three laws are currently Class 4 misdemeanors punishable by a $250 fine.

The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled the ban on fornication unconstitutional in 2005, but its patron, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, said it’s confusing and misleading to leave it on the books.

The bill passed the House 91-5 and cleared the Senate unanimously.

“It’s a stupid law,” he told Capital News Service.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.