A former Southern Baptist pastor and denominational leader on Wednesday pleaded not guilty to offering sex to a police officer decoying as a male prostitute, while the American Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief saying charges against him should be dropped
Lonnie Latham, 60, was arrested Jan. 3 in Oklahoma City on a misdemeanor charge of offering to engage in an act of lewdness. After release on $500 bond, he resigned as pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church and from leadership positions with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and as a member of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.
According the to the Associated Press, Latham agreed to return to Oklahoma County District Court on March 9, when a trial date could be set.
The ACLU said in its brief that the prosecutor should drop the charge against Latham, arguing that non-commercial sex between consenting adults is constitutionally protected, and its solicitation thereby cannot be illegal.
“The Supreme Court has made it crystal clear that, when it comes to their sex lives, consenting adults are free to do whatever they please in private,” Joann Bell, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, said in a statement. “According to the police report, Rev. Latham did nothing more than invite another man to his hotel room for consensual sex. It is not a crime merely to invite someone to have completely lawful sex. If it were otherwise, every bar in the state may as well shut its doors.”
The ACLU cited Supreme Court cases including Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 landmark ruling establishing there is a constitutional right to privacy and Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 decision striking down Texas’ sodomy law and protecting decisions about sexual intimacy regardless of the partners’ gender.
According to police reports, Latham propositioned a male plainclothes police officer who was patrolling an area in northwest Oklahoma City that had been the focus of complaints about male prostitution. He allegedly asked the officer to come to his hotel room to perform a sexual act. He was not charged with prostitution, because there was no discussion about an exchange of money.
“The act that was allegedly solicited in this case–adult, consensual, private, non-commercial sex with a person of the same gender–is a form of constitutionally protected activity which may not be criminalized,” according to the ACLU brief. Since the act is protected by the Constitution, the ACLU continued, so is its solicitation.
The ACLU also said it is discriminatory to censor the speech of a person seeking to enter into a sexual relationship with a person of the same gender, but not those who proposition a person of the opposite sex.
“It is indisputably commonplace for an adult, while in a public place (e.g., in a bar or on the street) to invite an adult of the opposite gender to his or her home (or other private place) to engage in some sort of sexual activity, yet such a person is virtually never prosecuted for soliciting an act of lewdness,” the brief said.
“This prosecution stands in marked contrast. The only explanation for this stark disparity appears to be disapproval of those who seek to enter into a sexual relationship with a person of the same gender.”
Latham’s attorney, Mack Martin of Oklahoma City, said he believes his client’s arrest raises “a major First Amendment issue” and that media attention to the case pressured the district attorney into filing the charge.
Oklahoma City District Attorney Wes Lane stood by the charge.
“The law in Oklahoma prohibits an individual from soliciting another to engage in what is considered a lewd act regardless of whether money is sought for or exchanged,” Lane said in a statement.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.