Massachusetts Legislator Targets Archaic Laws
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Fish got to swim, birds got to fly, and lawmakers got to make laws. Isn't that how the song goes?
Well, in Massachusetts, one lawmaker is spending his time trying to make laws go away.
NPR's Tovia Smith tells us about.
TOVIA SMITH: State Representative Byron Rushing calls it a kind of legislative spring cleaning that's just about 100 years or so overdue.
State Representative BYRON RUSHING (Democrat, Massachusetts): You know, we have a lot of law. And there are laws that just sit there that we call archaic, like things - like blasphemy.
SMITH: Oh my God, you might say. But if you did so - willfully blasphemed the holy name of God, says Massachusetts General Law Chapter 272 Section 36, by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, you could spend a year in the slammer.
State Rep. RUSHING: There were some serious laws that we probably should've never done in the first place but they are enforceable.
SMITH: Rushing has found 20 of these sort of legal dustbowls that he wants to repeal. There's a law that makes it illegal to be a communist and another that would have you arrested for, quote, "engaging in immoral conduct in a restaurant or tavern." And there are countless other crimes in between.
You could call the cops on anybody out there. We could look out the window on Boston Common and see someone with a tattoo.
State Rep. RUSHING: That's right. If it wasn't made by a qualified physician…
SMITH: They might go to jail.
State Rep. RUSHING: …they might - that's right.
SMITH: Anybody who's on birth control?
State Rep. RUSHING: Anybody who's on birth control and doesn't have a wedding ring.
SMITH: Anybody who spits on the ground.
State Rep. RUSHING: Anyone who spits, right. Now, they won't go to jail. They'll just get fined.
SMITH: Who knew?
State Rep. RUSHING: Who knew?
SMITH: Apparently, no one. You know, it's illegal in Massachusetts to use birth control if you're not married?
Mr. ERIC BRUSKIN(ph) (Boston Resident): I didn't know that.
SMITH: Ever guilty of anything like that?
Mr. BRUSKIN: Yes. Yes. Many times.
SMITH: You'd be surprised how many criminals like Eric Bruskin(ph) are lurking around Boston Common in broad daylight.
You guys better call a lawyer.
Unidentified Man #1: I will.
Mr. BRUSKIN: I know. I know. Yeah.
SMITH: Did you know that it was illegal in Massachusetts to spit on the sidewalks.
Mr. JOSE FORTE(ph) (Boston Resident): No, I think I've done it a couple of times.
SMITH: Might you have ever done that in our life?
Mr. FORTE: Oh, we have all done that.
SMITH: This is where I ask for your name.
Mr. FORTE: Oh, God. Jose.
SMITH: And your last name. I'm not going to turn in.
Mr. FORTE: Forte.
SMITH: The spitting law dates back a century or so to a time when people fear that it could spread tuberculosis. That's no longer a threat, but there are many Bay Staters like Linda Briskin(ph) who still wants spitting to be a crime.
Ms. LINDA BRISKIN (Boston Resident): It's nasty. It's filthy. It's just unsanitary.
SMITH: State Representative Byron Rushing said, he got a slew of e-mails from fans of the anti-spitting law, but he still think it's a bad precedent to make something illegal just because it seemed as disgusting. He admits he's having trouble getting some to take his legislation seriously, but he insists, repealing these laws is serious business.
State Rep. RUSHING: What happens when you get some overeager prosecutor who decides, well, I'm going to use this, all right? So we have to be very careful about leaving those crazy laws on the book.
SMITH: Sounds farfetched? Witnessed just a few years ago, a nearly century-old law that was meant to prevent interracial marriages was dusted off and used by former Governor Mitt Romney to block gay couples from out of state for marrying here. Rushing is still kicking himself for not getting to the house-cleaning sooner.
State Rep. RUSHING: If we have been doing what we're doing 6 years ago, we would simply have said to people, oh, that's racist bill, we should get rid of that law and everybody wouldn't have done it. Boom, it wouldn't have been gone. And people coming and getting ready. Although in this (unintelligible) very, very different.
SMITH: Repealing these old laws, Rushing says, is at high stakes as anything he's done. The thing is, he says, you just might not know why until it's too late.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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