Texas Sodomy Law Struck Down
Summary: A Texas court ruling has turned the nightmare of two gay men arrested at
home into a dream test case against the ban on same-gender oral and anal sex.
Texas 14th Court of Appeals on June 8 in a 2 - 1 decision struck down the
states "Homosexual Conduct" law as violating the Equal Rights Amendment of
the state constitution. The state Attorney Generals office has not yet said if it
will appeal the ruling. If the decision stands, it will leave only three U.S. states with
laws criminalizing private non-commercial oral and anal sex between consenting adults
applying exclusively to same-gender couples; another dozen states have similar laws
applying equally to heterosexuals.
When first enacted in 1860, Texas law also applied to heterosexuals, but in 1974
they were excluded. That was the key to the majority decision written by Justice John
Anderson, which said, "The simple fact is, the same behavior is criminal for some but
not for others, based solely on the sex of the individuals who engage in the
behavior." The majority understood this to be prohibited by the state
constitutions statement that, "Equality under the law shall not be denied or
abridged because of sex" (and four other protected categories).
The court felt no need to consider additional arguments that the law violates state
privacy guarantees or provisions of the federal constitution, but it did go on to chide
lawmakers. Anderson wrote that "it does not follow that simply because the Texas
Legislature has enacted as law what may be a moral choice of the majority, the courts are,
therefore, bound to acquiesce. Our Constitution does not protect morality; it does,
however, guarantee equality to all persons under the law." Some conservative
lawmakers had indicated they would like to retain the statute as a statement of public
What was a personal nightmare for two gay men turned out to be a perfect test of the
law in a worst-case scenario of its application and that was important, because
earlier civil challenges to the law had been rejected on grounds that the plaintiffs could
not prove they had been harmed by it. In fact the situation was so perfect that some
conservative politicians charged it had been set up specifically to challenge the law, but
that was not the case.
On September 17, 1998 Roger Nance falsely told police there was an armed intruder at
the home of John Lawrence. (Nance later pleaded guilty to filing a false report and served
15 days in jail.) Police broke into Lawrences apartment and discovered him engaged
in consensual sex with Tyrone Garner. They arrested both men, charging them with violating
the Homosexual Conduct law. The men spent more than 24 hours in jail before they were each
released on $200 bond.
By arrangement with prosecutors so they could pursue a constitutional challenge to the
statute, the men pleaded no contest first before a Justice of the Peace and then in the
Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law. In the criminal court on December 22, the judge
rejected their constitutional challenge and sentenced each of them to fines of $200 (the
maximum fine for the Class C misdemeanor being $500). The men immediately filed their
appeal, which the 14th Court of Appeals heard in November 1999. Lawrence and Garner were
assisted by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and by Mitchell Katine of the
Houston law firm Williams, Birnberg & Anderson.
Lawrence said in a statement after the appellate ruling that, "At least this
nightmare brought some benefit for all of us in Texas. I am thankful and relieved that
this horrible experience may finally be over."
Lambdas deputy legal director Ruth Harlow, who argued the case before the appeals
court, added, "The court has rightfully put an end to a law that has made lesbians
and gay men second-class citizens in Texas. Finally, they can rest assured that when they
retreat to the privacy of their own bedroom, the government will not barge in and declare
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