U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Sodomy Law Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted Texas’s ban on homosexual sodomy while nullifying all remaining state laws against sodomy, homosexual and heterosexual alike.

Summary of Event

At the time that Houston police officers responded to the report of a weapons disturbance at the home of John Geddes Lawrence on September 17, 1998, fourteen U.S. states maintained laws against sodomy. Four states—Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas—criminalized specifically same-gender sodomy. When the officers dispatched to the scene found no weapons disturbance but rather Lawrence engaging in anal sex with another man, Tyron Garner, they arrested the two men for violating Texas’s “homosexual conduct” law. Homosexual conduct law, Texas Lawrence and Garner were held in police custody overnight and posted $200 bail. [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Sodomy Law (June 26, 2003) [kw]Supreme Court Overturns Texas Sodomy Law, U.S. (June 26, 2003) [kw]Court Overturns Texas Sodomy Law, U.S. Supreme (June 26, 2003) [kw]Texas Sodomy Law, U.S. Supreme Court Overturns (June 26, 2003) [kw]Sodomy Law, U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas (June 26, 2003) [kw]Law, U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Sodomy (June 26, 2003) Lawrence v. Texas (2003)[Lawrence v Texas] Supreme Court, U.S.;sodomy Sodomy laws;United States Civil rights;United States [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 26, 2003: U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Sodomy Law[2710] [c]Civil rights;June 26, 2003: U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Texas Sodomy Law[2710] Garner, Tyron Lawrence, John Geddes Kennedy, Anthony M. Scalia, Antonin

On November 20, the two men were charged and convicted by a justice of the peace. They pleaded no contest and requested that the court dismiss the charges on the basis of equal protection, claiming that Texas’s law was unconstitutional to the extent that it applied only to homosexual, but not to heterosexual, sodomy. Lawrence and Garner also claimed their right to privacy, Privacy rights protected under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The neighbor who reported the false weapons disturbance was later convicted for filing a false report.

The report of the gun that neither Lawrence nor Garner fired that night nonetheless echoed throughout America, setting into motion the chain of events that would irremediably change both judicial precedent and the ongoing fight for gay and lesbian rights. The ground that Lawrence v. Texas (2003) gained for gay and lesbian rights did not, however, simply build upon Lawrence and Garner’s violation of the Texas statute in the fall of 1998. The Lawrence precedent also had to revisit the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)[Bowers v Hardwick] decision from seventeen years earlier.

In writing the majority opinion of the Lawrence court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy challenged the arguments that the Bowers court so strongly supported. Where the Bowers court asserted that the central issue in laws like the Texas statute was whether individuals have a “fundamental right to commit homosexual sodomy,” the Lawrence court interpreted the petitioners’ challenge to the Texas law as a broader, more inclusive right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. Where the Bowers court asserted that proscriptions against sodomy have “ancient roots,” the Lawrence court demonstrated that this was not necessarily obvious. Lawrence v. Texas not only broadened the definition of “personal liberty” but also, in the context of the Court’s history of legislating sexual freedoms, called into question the notion of “history” itself.

Even from within the Court’s majority opinion, one heard a voice of dissent. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor filed an opinion independent of Justice Kennedy’s, which supported the Lawrence decision not on the basis of due process but rather under the auspices of equal protection: that a law cannot discriminate against one class of people in favor of another. While Justice O’Connor ultimately agreed with the Court’s decision to overturn the Texas statute, she did not support the Court’s overruling Bowers v. Hardwick. Her position was that the Georgia law against sodomy at issue in Bowers applied both to heterosexual and to homosexual sodomy, whereas the Texas “homosexual conduct” law did not.

The grounds for Justice Antonin Scalia’s sharply written dissenting opinion challenged the limits this decision imposed upon the states’ ability to legislate morality. Justice Scalia’s rejoinder to Justices Kennedy and O’Connor argued that this case could result in much more than the legalization of sodomy. Scalia predicted that Lawrence v. Texas not only would legalize sodomy but also would eventually restrict the states’ ability to prohibit “bigamy, same-gender marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity.”

Significance

Lawrence v. Texas might not have inaugurated an era of sexual and moral anarchy, as Scalia’s description predicted, but without a doubt the case had implications that reached far beyond the lives of John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner—and far beyond overturning the remaining sodomy laws of Texas and other states. Above and beyond broadening the scope of what rights and individuals the due process clause protects, in the following year the Lawrence v. Texas decision initiated a series of legal landmarks in addition to a swell of conservative backlash.

On July 30, 2003, President George W. Bush Bush, George W. announced his support of a constitutional amendment against same-gender marriage, undoubtedly motivated by Scalia’s ominous predictions. On July 31, 2003, the Vatican issued a treatise on the virtues of heterosexual marriage, recommending not only that same-gender marriage should be forbidden but also that same-gender partners should not be parents. Though the Vatican’s document was in progress for two years prior to Lawrence, its release only a month afterward seemed more than coincidental.

Refusing to heed Scalia’s warnings or to follow President Bush’s lead or to give credence to the Vatican’s doctrines, on May 17, 2004, the state of Massachusetts legalized same-gender marriage, a decision that was undoubtedly encouraged by the federal Court’s ruling less than one year before. Though no other states followed suit—California and Missouri actively rejected appeals to legalize gay and lesbian marriage—after Lawrence it became increasingly clear that gay and lesbian marriage, and not simply the “right to commit homosexual sodomy,” was at issue in the case. Scalia realized this in his dissenting opinion, as did Justice Kennedy in his Opinion of the Court, and it is this end to which Lawrence v. Texas brought the United States that much closer in July of 2003. Lawrence v. Texas (2003)[Lawrence v Texas] Supreme Court, U.S.;sodomy Sodomy laws;United States Civil rights;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cain, Patricia A. Rainbow Rights: The Role of Lawyers and Courts in the Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights Movement. Cambridge, Mass.: Westview Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curry, Lynne. The Human Body on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldberg, Jonathan. Reclaiming Sodom. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hickey, Adam. “Between Two Spheres: Comparing State and Federal Approaches to the Right to Privacy and Prohibitions Against Sodomy.” Yale Law Review 111, no. 4 (January, 2002): 993-1030.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    Lawrence v. Texas. 539 U.S. 558, 123 S.Ct. 2472, 156 L.Ed.2d 508. Summary: http://www.supreme courtus.gov/opinions/02pdf/02-102.pdf.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murdoch, Joyce, and Deb Price. Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richards, David A. J. The Case for Gay Rights: From Bowers to Lawrence and Beyond. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubenstein, William B. Cases and Materials on Sexual Orientation and the Law. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tribe, Lawrence H. “Lawrence v. Texas: The ’Fundamental Right’ That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Harvard Law Review 117, no. 6 (April, 2004): 1893-1955.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

1885: United Kingdom Criminalizes “Gross Indecency”

January 12, 1939: Thompson v. Aldredge Dismisses Sodomy Charges Against Lesbians

1961: Illinois Legalizes Consensual Homosexual Sex

January 22, 1973: Roe v. Wade Legalizes Abortion and Extends Privacy Rights

June 21, 1973: U.S. Supreme Court Supports Local Obscenity Laws

August, 1973: American Bar Association Calls for Repeal of Laws Against Consensual Sex

October 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law

November 17, 1975: U.S. Supreme Court Rules in “Crimes Against Nature” Case

1981: Gay and Lesbian Palimony Suits Emerge

1986: Bowers v. Hardwick Upholds State Sodomy Laws

January 1, 1988: Canada Decriminalizes Sex Practices Between Consenting Adults

1992-2006: Indians Struggle to Abolish Sodomy Law

Categories: History Content