An animal-rights activist wriggles free from a legal trap.

Arathi Jayaram took a quick peek around the crowded conference room inside the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Two thousand attendees, escaping the late-May humidity, sat attentively as Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman strolled to the podium to kick off something called the National Nutrition Summit. Jayaram, in keeping with the spirit of the day, carried her own nutritious treat: the tofu cream pie she had made earlier that morning.

Pie tucked under her shirt, Jayaram left her fourth-row seat and strode onstage to within 3 feet of Glickman, somehow unhindered by hotel security. She cocked her arm and fired, point blank.

The pie flew toward Glickman, who managed to turn his back. “Shame on you, Dan Glickman, you meat pimp!” Jayaram yelled. Security officials promptly carried her from the hall; globs of goo clung to Glickman’s suit.

Jayaram tells the story with pride. An activist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), she disrupted the D.C. conference to protest what she perceives as Glickman’s excessive support of the U.S. meat and dairy industries. “As a group that supposedly focuses on health, they do quite a bad job,” says Jayaram, describing the Agriculture Department. “I decided to make a statement that some people care about eating well.”

The activist, of course, had expected to pay a price for making that statement. She spent the night in jail, charged with misdemeanor assault on a cabinet officer. In June, Jayaram pleaded guilty to the charge, and U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Alan Kay sentenced her to two years of probation and community service. Last month, though, Virginia officials threatened Jayaram—an Old Dominion resident who had come to D.C. only to attack Glickman—with one further consequence of her pie toss: a shotgun wedding.

Because Jayaram lives in Norfolk, her probation was shifted, upon her conviction, to the court system there. And that’s where her current troubles began. PETA’s may be a modern cause, but this particular case ran smack into a piece of 17th-century legislation. On Sept. 6, during a standard visit with probation officer Anna Hodge, Jayaram learned that she could go to prison for something she considers a basic right: living with her fiancé, Luke Downing.

Hodge informed Jayaram that by living—and, presumably, sleeping—with Downing, she violated an obscure Virginia law against fornication. Because Jayaram was on probation for the pie incident, Hodge said the commission of any other crime—no matter how rarely enforced—could land Jayaram in jail. Hodge’s ultimatum was cruelly simple: tie the knot, move out, or go to jail.

“We were both in disbelief,” Jayaram said from Norfolk, before coming back to the District for an Oct. 2 hearing on her case. “It’s ironic that a state that legalized recreational hunting will not permit us to be in a loving relationship.”

As activists committed to waging war on the meat industry, the couple never expected that something so conventional as cohabitation could land them in hot water. Downing, a senior majoring in finance at Old Dominion University, met Jayaram while volunteering for PETA in November 1998. “It’s hard, because we’re both so busy, and we don’t have a lot of money,” says Downing. “But we were adjusting pretty well” to sharing an apartment.

Jayaram waxes melodramatic in complaining about being handcuffed after the pie incident, but she seemed genuinely incredulous about the quandary she and Downing faced. And her biggest problem with the potential nuptials seemed anything but radical: “It’d be a shame if we had to get married immediately,” said Jayaram late last month. “Our families would not be able to attend.”

As unappealing as a hasty marriage seemed, though, Downing says that moving would have been worse. The couple settled into their new apartment on Aug. 26, after signing a one-year lease. “The move itself was horrible,” Downing said the week before Monday’s hearing. “I don’t think we could go through that again. If it came down to it, we would get married.”

Virginia’s legislative code is no place for the faint of heart. Rife with sentiments that trace back to the settlement of Jamestown in 1607, the state’s laws sometimes lend themselves more to colonial thought than modern justice. That is, when judges actually enforce them.

“There are many laws on the books that should just be removed,” says Andrew Sacks, a Norfolk criminal-defense attorney, “although many are not harmful, because judges just don’t pay attention to them.” Fornication laws, on the books in Virginia since 1661, generally fall into that category. “That law is often used as a cop-out for rapists,” says Sacks. “It’s a bone the defense can throw to the jury if evidence is inconclusive but they still want to convict on some grounds.”

Ordinarily, consensual sex between unmarried Virginians is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum $250 fine. But because Jayaram is on probation, her case is different. If she breaks any Virginia law, she violates her probation and could go to jail for the incident with Glickman—even though her probation itself stems from a sentence handed down in fornication-friendly D.C.

“This is a case of selectively enforcing a law, which is very unfair,” says Phillip Hirschkop, Jayaram’s lawyer. “And the law itself is ridiculous.” Says Sacks, “Virginia needs to get into the 21st century on this matter.”

Law experts don’t see that ever happening. “This statute will never get repealed,” says W. Hamilton Bryson, professor of law at the University of Richmond. Bryson, who’s been teaching at Richmond since 1973, says he had never before heard of the fornication law being enforced as it was with Jayaram. “That law is so rarely used in a damaging way that it’s not worth repealing it,” Bryson says. “And there are political ramifications for speaking out against it, since you’d be antagonizing the religious leaders whose predecessors implemented it in the first place.”

If there’s going to be a cause célèbre that forces Virginia to toss out its lifestyle laws, it won’t be Jayaram’s. On Monday, Kay took Jayaram’s marital future out of the probation officer’s hands by accepting Jayaram’s request to change her parole status.

“What we’re aiming for is unsupervised probation, which will let the couple maintain their current living situation,” said Hirschkop two days before leading his client into U.S. District Court.

Kay OK’d the idea, making Jayaram’s probation unsupervised—which means that she and Downing no longer have to report to some nosy probation officer. Jayaram, though, looked a bit overwhelmed during the 20-minute hearing. She shuffled through the courtroom, head down, nodding timidly while Kay reminded her that she will still have to file monthly reports with the probation office in Easton County, where Norfolk is located.

And Kay took yet another chance to reproach Jayaram for her tofu-tossing, if not her sleeping arrangements. “Let me make it clear to you that this court considers your actions to be of a very serious nature,” Kay said to Jayaram.

Afterward, Jayaram, Downing, and Hirschkop quietly celebrated their victory in the courthouse’s first-floor hallway. Jayaram’s eyes gleamed through her black-rimmed glasses. Standing barely 5-foot-2, she pulled her yellow sweater closed and smiled sheepishly. “I’m just glad it’s over and that the judge was reasonable,” she said.

Downing stood a bit aloof, grinning. Hirschkop, meanwhile, put the decision in context. “It’s a good way for the court to save face and let my client move on,” he said. “This is what I expected all along.”

He had apparently forgotten to tell that to Jayaram, who still looked a little shellshocked by her brush with state-ordained matrimony. For whatever reason, the Jayaram standing in the courthouse corridor wasn’t the same Jayaram whom PETA president Ingrid Newkirk lavishes with praise. “The pie incident was pure vaudeville, and that’s a great way to reach people,” says Newkirk.

PETA—with 700,000 members, the country’s largest animal-rights organization—loves activists like Jayaram, who last January teamed up with Downing to protest Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s support of New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Sitting in the front row at a city hall news conference, the two shot out of their seats and began flinging paper money in the air, denouncing the mayor for selling out to a company that PETA alleges treats animals cruelly. The two were charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct.

“The majority of our activities never result in arrest,” admits Newkirk, who says that Jayaram is one of PETA’s feistier employees. “But it’s a great way to get attention.”

Right now, Jayaram—who still works in PETA’s literature department—just wants to start focusing her attention elsewhere. “I have devoted much of my time to securing rights for animals,” Jayaram says. “Now I want to make sure no one has to go through what I just did.”

The opportunity may arise sooner than she expects: Jayaram will spend her remaining 280 hours of community service working with Norfolk’s drug-addicted youth, to whom she’ll be able to give a firsthand account of why it’s a good thing to stay off Virginia probation. CP