Georgia Adultery Debate Shows Shift in Morality

Candidate's admitted affair stirs debate on old and unenforced laws against sodomy

Mike Bowers built his career on being a man of his word.

This former Georgia attorney general - and a Republican candidate for governor - stood as few others had for law and order, even upholding the state's 187-year-old laws against adultery, fornication, and sodomy that for decades had been largely ignored.

But then, Mr. Bowers did the unthinkable. He admitted to breaking the laws he had made a point of defending. Earlier this month, Bowers announced he had been having a decade-long affair with a married co-worker, sullying the squeaky-clean image he had tended so carefully.

Voters and Republican leaders were outraged. Newspapers and talk shows have buzzed of nothing else for weeks. But some of the reaction has been surprising - and telling.

Reflecting a loosening of the strict social mores that have traditionally bound the South, public attention has shifted away from tarring Bowers for his hypocrisy and toward removing statutes that technically make what Bowers did a crime.

Georgia is grappling with the issue of adultery at the same time as the rest of the nation - and there is a growing sentiment here that people should not be held professionally accountable for their personal indiscretions. It is a sharp departure for a state deep in the so-called "Bible belt."

Old laws under scrutiny

"The majority of the rural areas and especially metro Atlanta have changed so much in last 15 years with an influx of people from all over," says Rep. Doug Teper (D) of Atlanta, a Georgia legislator who is proposing that the laws on adultery, fornication, and sodomy be dropped from the books.

They were absorbed from English common law in the 19th century and thus were never drafted or designed by Georgians, says state Sen. Steve Langford (D), who will make getting rid of the laws a central part of his run for lieutenant governor.

The laws - similar to statutes in 20 other states - have been debated by Georgians before, however. In the mid-1980s, a bill to wipe out the law prohibiting sodomy was voted on and defeated in the legislature. Earlier attempts to do away with the laws have failed as well.

This time may be different, predict observers. The difference is partly the state's changing moral landscape and partly that the Bowers case shows the problem with having laws that are largely unenforced.

"This has made folks statewide realize that as much as these laws may be an annunciation of their personal values ... they are not as a practical matter criminal laws," says Gerry Weber, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

Others are less sure Georgia is ready to break with its past. "Even though these laws have been on the books for 150 years, the people still don't want adultery, fornication, and sodomy rubber-stamped as a lifestyle," says state Rep. Warren Massey (R), who has withdrawn support for Bowers.

Ultimately, even if some Georgians are ready to get rid of these laws, the legislature may not be. "You don't score political points by making this an issue," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.

But the Bowers case also illustrates what some Georgians now see as a downside of these laws: selective enforcement. In 1991, while Bowers was attorney general, he withdrew a job offer to an attorney who was planning a union ceremony with her female partner.

His grounds for the move? By being in a homosexual relationship, she was breaking Georgia law, he argued. Robin Shahar filed an antidiscrimination suit. The courts sided with Bowers, citing the sex laws.

Candidacy in trouble

With Bowers's admission, the public now knows the state's top law enforcer was breaking the law for 10 years. One sign that Bowers's bid for the governorship may be in trouble: This week, Jerry Keen, head of the Christian Coalition of Georgia said he may enter the race. And as many as 11 elected officials have said they may drop support for Bowers.

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