Repealing More Archaic Laws

I’m pleased to report some progress on repealing archaic anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Below, you can view my personal floor speech on the bill or read the full Senate press release. As background, see also this 2018 post about our repeal of archaic laws against choice, contraception, and adult sex.


Bill would strike discriminatory laws, establish a permanent commission to recommend outdated legislation for repeal

(BOSTON–1/18/2024) Today, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed legislation to modernize the Commonwealth’s laws and strike outdated and non-inclusive statutes that are discriminatory against LGBTQ+ individuals in the state. 

S.2551—An Act relative to archaic lawswould remove archaic laws that intrude on an individual’s privacy regarding sexual activity. The bill would remove existing statutes that criminalize sodomy and so-called ‘unnatural’ acts between consenting adults and make Massachusetts laws more inclusive of individuals who are LGBTQIA+. Terms struck include terminology such as sodomy, “unnatural or lascivious” sex acts, and “common nightwalkers”. In some cases, the language that this bill would strike from the General Laws dates back into the 1800s. 

Additionally, the bill would establish a permanent law revision commission to examine common law, statutes and judicial decisions to identify anachronisms in the law and recommend needed reforms; receive and consider proposed changes; recommend changes in the law to align with modern conditions; and make recommendations to improve the openness and accessibility of state laws.

“Fewer things give me greater pride than leading a Senate that has spent years at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights, and living in a Commonwealth where we proudly embrace every individual for who they are,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “But while our values have changed for the better, sometimes the letter of the law has not. I am tremendously grateful for Senator Brownsberger’s diligent and painstaking work to ensure that our laws reflect the inclusive values of Massachusetts as we live them today, and creating a mechanism for removing laws that are no longer acceptable or relevant. I extend my sincere thanks to Chair Rodrigues and Chair Eldridge for their support through the committee process. 

“This bill sends a message that Massachusetts is a place that cares about the freedom of individuals,” said Senator Willian N. Brownsberger (D-Belmont), President Pro Tempore of the Senate. “I look forward to working with my House colleagues to get this on the Governor’s desk.”

“It’s highly important to have our existing laws and language contained therein reflect the current times we live in. The creation of a permanent law review commission will go a long way towards abolishing archaic laws from the Massachusetts General Laws,” said Senator Michael J. Rodrigues (D-Westport) Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.  

“The commission created by this bill is essential as we continue to make progress on key policy areas and see the law change over time here in Massachusetts,” said Senator James B. Eldridge, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. “This bill will repeal laws that are outdated and negatively affect the LGBTQ+ community, and I look forward to the proposals that will come from this committee as they ensure our laws are clear of contradictions, are constitutional, and ensure all of our rights are upheld.”

“Repealing homophobic and transphobic language in state law helps to build a safer and more inclusive Commonwealth,” said Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro). “In Massachusetts, we take pride in being a welcoming state, and our laws must reflect our values. The archaic and discriminatory language found in Chapter 272 of the General Laws dates back to 1887 and historically was deployed to criminalize LGBTQ+ people. By removing harmful, homophobic, and transphobic language from our statutes, we ensure the letter of the law promotes equity and justice for all.”

Many of the laws addressed have not been enforced for many years due to superseding state and national law, court rulings, and Massachusetts’ decades-long transformation into a Commonwealth that welcomes all individuals regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill’s passage comes nearly a year and a half after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, in which Associate Justice Clarence Thomas suggested, in a concurring opinion, that the Court could revisit case law banning the criminal prosecution of sodomy. 

The bill won praise from LGBTQ+ advocates around the Commonwealth. 

“We are relieved and excited to see this legislation pass,” said Tanya V. Neslusan, Executive Director of MassEquality. “The Commonwealth prides itself on being a progressive, inclusive state and in that spirit, having the outdated legislation outlawing sodomy and referring to adult sexual activities as ‘unnatural acts’ stricken from our books makes Massachusetts a safer, more inclusive place for all of our residents and visitors, especially those who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community.”

During the debate, the Senate adopted an amendment from Senator Becca Rausch (D-Needham) striking a law banning blasphemy. Today’s passage marks the second consecutive session in which the Senate has acted to modernize the Commonwealth’s laws to make them more inclusive. 

Having been passed by the Senate, the legislation now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration.   


Text of senate-approved legislation

Senate Bill 2561, An Act relative to archaic laws (you can see text and follow future action at this link).

Resources pertaining to original sodomy law to be repealed

Current Statute: Chapter 272, Section 34

Whoever commits the abominable and detestable crime against nature, either with mankind or with a beast, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than twenty years.

G.L. c. 272, s.34
Massachusetts Body of Liberties from 1641 — Criminal Code Section

1. If any man after legall conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death. dut. 13.6.10, dut. 17.2.6, ex. 22.20

2. If any man or woeman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) They shall be put to death. ex. 22.18, lev. 20.27, dut. 18.10

3. If any person shall Blaspheme the name of God, the father, Sonne, or Holie ghost, with direct expresse, presumptuous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death. lev. 24.15.16

4. If any person committ any wilfull murther, which is manslaughter, committed upon premeditated mallice, hatred, or Crueltie, not in a mans necessarie and just defence, nor by meere casualtie against his will, he shall be put to death. ex. 21.12, numb. 35.13.14, 30.31

5. If any person slayeth an other suddainely in his anger or Crueltie of passion, he shall be put to death. numb. 25.20.21, lev. 24.17

6. If any person shall slay an other through guile, either by poysoning or other such divelish practice, he shall be put to death. ex. 21.14

7. If any man or woman shall lye with any beast or brute creature by Carnall Copulation, They shall surely be put to death. And the beast shall be slaine and buried and not eaten. lev. 19.23

8. If any man lyeth with mankinde as he lyeth with a woeman, both of them have committed abhomination, they both shall surely be put to death. lev. 19.22

9. If any person committeth Adultery with a married or espoused wife, the Adulterer and Adulteresse shall surely be put to death. ex. 20.14

10. If any man stealeth a man or mankinde, he shall surely be put to death. ex. 21.16

11. If any man rise up by false witnes, wittingly and of purpose to take away any man’s life, he shall be put to death. dut. 19.16, 18. 19

12. If any man shall conspire and attempt any invation, insurrection, or publique rebellion against our commonwealth, or shall indeavour to surprize any Towne or Townes, fort or forts therein, or shall treacherously and perfediouslie attempt the alteration and subversion of our frame of politie or Government fundamentallie, he shall be put to death.

Massachusetts 1641 Body of Liberties — scan for “94” to get to this criminal code.
Notes on historical antecedents of Chapter 272, Section 34.

Research prepared by Alicia Brisson, Legislative Director

Supreme Court precedent limiting enforcement of Chapter 272, Sections 34 and 35

Lawrence v Texas 539 U.S. 558 (2003)

Resources pertaining to Victorian era sodomy law to be repealed

Current statute: Chapter 272, Section 35

Whoever commits any unnatural and lascivious act with another person shall be punished by a fine of not less than one hundred nor more than one thousand dollars or by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years or in jail or the house of correction for not more than two and one half years.

G.L. c. 272, s.35
Notes on historical antecedents of Chapter 272, Section 35.

Research prepared by Alicia Brisson, Legislative Director

District Court Model Jury Instructions Pertaining to Chapter 272, Section 35

Court narrowing and interpretation of Chapter 272, Section 35

Resources pertaining to “nightwalker” law to be repealed

Current statute: Chapter 272, Section 53 (highlighted language only to be repealed)

Section 53. (a) Common night walkers, common street walkers, both male and female, persons who with offensive and disorderly acts or language accost or annoy another person, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure shall be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 6 months, or by a fine of not more than $200, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

G.L. c. 272, section 53 (language to repealed highlighted)
District Court Model Jury Instructions Pertaining to Chapter 272, Section 53 Common Nightwalker

Court narrowing and interpretation of Chapter 272, Section 53

Note: Primary prostitution Law not to be repealed is Chapter 272, Section 53A

Previous repeal of laws related to abortion, contraception, and fornication

Summary of 2018 legislation.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

43 replies on “Repealing More Archaic Laws”

  1. Great to hear modern values are getting codified in our law. Very important work. Thank you!

  2. Thank you Sen. Brownsberger.

    There are a lot of other anachronisms in the law that need to be looked at as well. I heard that there is still a Puritan law on the books that makes it a crime to do any physical activity/sports on a Sunday.

    1. There are definitely other anachronisms. FWIW, I’m not aware of a law limiting physical activity on Sundays — but there are a lot of laws on the books. That’s why the law creates a study committee.

  3. Thanks, Will. Well said! I appreciated the history lesson (didn’t know how archaic some of our laws are). Building ‘a more perfect union’ regarding human rights takes work.

  4. I’m not sure there is a real problem in this State with persecution or discrimination of an individuals sexual preference. Of course there should not be and in fact there is no discrimination, particularly at the State level.. Good to take archaic laws off the books even if just a symbolic. curiosity. However, I should point out your rank hypocrisy as you fully supported discrimination and exclusion when it comes to the State forcing medical interventions on it’s citizens. If I recall you fully supported Mayor Wu, excluding patrons from dining in restaurants, attending museums, ball games, library, attendance at school, being fired from jobs, etc. Here you have no issue with the State forcing your beliefs on other individuals. Nobody should be forced to take drugs or have medical interventions because of your beliefs. I thought this was settled at Nuremberg, but I guess we never really learn from History.

  5. This is good to remove de-humanizing language from the law. (That at the time was meant to make life more godly and thus humane.)

    So our entire body of MA law is under review by an appointed committee and all future law must pass through the same ideological filtration process?

    Doesn’t the existence of some archaic artifacts such as man needing a day off anchor us to a moral bedrock?

  6. Thanks for this update. Does the bill go to House Ways & Means now? Is the next step moving it from there to a floor vote in the House?

      1. It looks like the companion bill is H.1640. Is that the one I should be contacting my House representative to ask him to support?

  7. The law books are full of obsolete laws that need review. Gender preference is a big one but not necessarily the only view. How about marital status. Look at property ownership Tenancy in common V/S joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

  8. This is a good project!

    Having archaic laws on the books makes criminals of us all and undermines all laws that protect society.

    Having certain archaic/anachronistic language on the books creates an environment where moral authority is undermined and the multitudes can choose which laws for follow with the confidence of living in new norms or the churlishness and wink and a nod.

    What is off limits?

    Does this circumvent any constitutional powers?

    (Like the MA Hands-Free Law which the people chose by lawful vote, but is unlawfully not enforced because of the confluence of the pandemic temporarily emptying the roads and the manifold changes following the BLM protests and maybe the corrupt pressure from the tech sector)

    Will there be public review of the words going under the knife? Will that be in the OpenSource?

    How will it be decided between what’s archaic in one man’s opinion and still morally sound -if only the deeper jist of it by another’s man’s opinion?

    Are there any laws on the books that may be clumsily worded, but still protect the Commonwealth?

    Will the all the excisions and replacements be debated fairly and meaningfully before the common people and subject to objection?

    With the committee undertake and enter into the record an academic review of the archaic laws and society and differentiate between type, substance, norms and so on?

    1. The power of the new committee would be to study the law and recommend sections for repeal. The authority to change the law would continue to reside in the legislature.

      And the process for doing so would be through the normal legislative process.

      1. So is this a straight forward process of good legislative practices in rewording archaic and anachronistic laws where the committee works in good faith and in accordance the “committee shall” items without contention not putting forth a partisan product to be rubber-stamped?

  9. Bravo, Bill! It’s important that these archaic laws are struck off so they can’t present opportunities to be used as stalking horses by bad actors.

  10. Cleaning up the MGL by ridding it of archaic laws such as these is important as it makes it very clear to all where we stand on these issues. Keep up the good work!

  11. It’s essential to strike while the iron is hot (and the time is auspicious and propitious and otherwise advantageous!)

    So by changing “common nightwalker,” to “person,” are we blinding law enforcement to prostitution and human trafficing?

    What were some of the other archaic laws? Like protecting our weakest and poorest citizens from the sucker’s bet of lotteries? Now we’re all riding the backs of the poor instead of the better off being held to pay full freight.

      1. Prostitution would not exist if for sexism, and sadly neediness (poverty in this… No less there’d be greed, but by whom..exploitative people? Think about it..It’s complicated

        1. I’d like to add, that a lot of workers are asked to compensate in wages “to keep the economy going”. So let’s acknowledge that prostitution might be an alternative to those corporations that give minimal, nearly homeless type wages..but, can there be a little bit of Diginity here?

          You’re homeless..we just passed a bill that prostitution is legal, so you can whore yourself out to avoid slave wages..nice deal..

          Maybe pass a bill for universal income?

          I will look for the 2 bills on this universal income in house and pass on to you..soon as I find them..

          Thank you!

        2. Ok, maybe bill h.3598..there maybe more. Why Markie hasn’t co sponsored, I don’t know. Warren was on the financial committee , what is she doing on this?

          Maybe call Warren and Markie on this important bill. Also, there is an SSI bill to up the amount of money one can have in their account. This is important, because if you are frugal and need to save for security deposit on an apt. You can be penalized and lose your benifents.. please, address this!

  12. So this is gone even though we all take ot with a grain of salt:

    Section 36: Blasphemy

    Section 36. Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.

    1. So, over 250,000 of “God’s creation” dead thanks to the Sackler’s unlawful and evil actions we’ve got politicians across the country giving these slaughterers and dealers of largesse a blasphemous slap on the wrist under protection of the holy shield of populism and the corporate monopolized media.

  13. Reword Section 36: Blasphemy don’t erase history by striking it because of a narrow-minded few.

    There are believers and atheists and humanists alike who cherish, study, meditate and reflect on mankind’s relationship with “God.” Expand 36 to include native spirits, Catholics and other Christian sects, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, Mohammedans, Wiccans, humanists and the whole panoply of humanity’s seemingly hard-wired wonder about the universe and creation.

    1. …narrow-minded and intolerant few.

      Inclusion is the order of the day and it’s righteous and moral, but power corrupts.

      As a white straight-ish male over 50 I admit some trepidation about the (Western?) Civilization baby being thrown out with the “white power structure” bathwater.

      1. Just as the abused becomes the abuser and those fleeing from persecution became the persecutors, so too shall the newly included become excluders.

  14. Thanks Will, for addressing these icky archaic laws, still on the books! What can I say, but I’m proud also, that you are in State senate..

  15. Well researched, well presented.
    A reflection of good intentions and good leadership.
    Thank you

    1. Ah, yes, I see that in the text. What’s vague to me is the committee process and the political dynamics. That’s not part of my day-to-day. I see where the appointments are distributed and staggered in time and thus representation and if that created a founder effect that carries forward as the committee matures through rounds of appointments and political changes. I don’t know if the that creates a hierarchy in that body that develops an inertia and authority which subverts its majority, minority, executive structure of the committee.

      Ya, I need to tale Gov’t 101 and 102 I don’t mind saying, bec. my knowledge is patchy.

  16. Thank you for working so hard and long to get rid of these archaic laws. Everyone should be protected by equal rights.

  17. 3. If any person shall Blaspheme the name of God, the father, Sonne, or Holie ghost, … he shall be put to death. lev. 24.15.16

    “Don’t you blaspheme in here, don’t you blaspheme in here!”
    – Aretha Franklin, in “The Blues Brothers”

  18. Thank you for adding the new resources this afternoon. It’s interesting to see how thoroughly Massachusetts was founded on principles of justice, fairness, equity (even though the times weren’t amenable to homosexuality and gender equality) by enshrining our civilization’s moral code (and operating manual) the Old Testament so deeply in our laws.

    How thorough and widespread are these historical expungements going to be? Are there any limitations?

    I get #8 and gender equality but isn’t there a risk of a wholesale assault on the character of the Commonwealth?

  19. What is the utility in removing archaic language from our laws if most of them are sitting there harmlessly marking the passage of time and reminding us where we came from?

    I get that it’s hard to abide the knowledge of the past and past harms these laws caused as values changed, but these archaic words no longer have the power to exclude only offend.

  20. I get that these archaic laws are stupid now hand have been stupid for a very long time yet we kept them and kept unbroken communion with our fore-bearers and honored the words that shepherded them through the millennia. To them we owe our existence. Are people really and truly wounded by some of the archaic words in our law today? What is the nature of this pain? Power held at bay? Is it an act of love to erase these words? I don’t want one person to be wounded by them, but before make this most profound and perhaps profane cut from our ancestors we should put before ourselves a test of purity of motive.

  21. It takes over 300 years to update our obsolete laws. Not sure if they are enforceable. How many have been executed under these laws? The last executions (I can recall) Sacco & Vanzetti. With the repeal of the death penalty I would think these laws by reference would be repealed by the fact they are no longer enforceable. Is such a process constitutional to automatic repeal? The state law books are likely to be full of dangling chaff. The legislature has it’s hands full just doing law book janitorial tasks. No time to do the important stuff. Is that how governments fail?

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