Court: Alabama Can Continue Sex Toy Sales Ban

Rhett Pardon
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In a blow to sex toy and novelty retailers, Alabama’s sex toy ban survived another court challenge in federal court.

A U.S. District Court in Birmingham ruled that Alabama has a right to limit sales of vibrators, sex dolls and butt plugs, as well as any other device used for sexual arousal.

Alabama’s sex toy statute criminalizes the commercial distribution of “any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.” Violations are punishable with fines of up to $10,000 and as much as a year in prison.

Sheri Williams, who owns Pleasures stores in Huntsville and Decatur, filed the lawsuit with seven other women and two men against the state Attorney General

Williams and the other plaintiffs argued the law was unconstitutional under Lawrence vs. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), in which the U.S. Supreme Court found no rational basis in public morality for banning sodomy.

But U.S. District Judge C. Smith’s latest ruling finds that the sex toy ban "does not fit squarely within the mold of Lawrence" and therefore survives review.

"[T]he Alabama statute does not offend the human dignity of a stigmatized class of individuals, nor implicate equal protection concerns about targeting a 'discrete and insular minority' for discrimination or harm out of simple hostility," Smith said in the ruling.

The case has wended its way throughout the legal labyrinth for seven years, starting with Smith’s 1999 holding that the law “was not rationally related to any legitimate state interest."

In a following legal test Smith reversed his decision, then invalidated it.

Then the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals limited Smith’s review to a more narrow issue — whether public morality is still a sufficiently rational basis to prohibit what the state's lawyers have called "commerce in the pursuit of orgasms by artificial means for their own sake."

This time around, Smith showed sarcasm after being rebuked by the 11th Circuit for not following its earlier instructions. "This lowly court," he said in a footnote, "can only hope that it has not again so woefully misconstrued the 11th Circuit’s directives."

The case is Williams vs. King, No. CV-98-S-1938.