Last edited: February 14, 2005

Court Gets Chance to Ban Sodomy Laws

Detroit News, July 29, 2002
615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226
Fax: 313-222-6417

By Deb Price, The Detroit News

Police burst into John Lawrence’s apartment looking for an armed intruder before midnight. Instead, the false report made by a jealous ex-lover led the police to see Lawrence making love with another man.

Both men were arrested, hauled down a flight of stairs and thrown into a Houston jail for 24 hours. Eventually, they were convicted of violating Texas’ Homosexual Conduct Law, which makes Texas one of four states that criminalize certain private, consensual sexual behavior only for same-sex couples. The same sex acts are legal for heterosexuals.

Quite obviously, that’s not fair. And now, thanks to the willingness of Lawrence and Tyron Garner—who were closeted before their outrageous arrest in 1998—to fight for justice, the U.S. Supreme Court has been handed an ideal opportunity to end that unfairness.

In a respectfully worded plea, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is petitioning the court to hear the Texans’ case and declare the gay-only sodomy laws of Texas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma unconstitutionally discriminatory. (See And, quite rightly, Lambda argues that the court should further rule that all sodomy laws are an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. (Ten states, including Michigan, have sodomy laws that apply to everyone.)

The powerful court won’t announce until the start of its fall term whether it will accept this incredibly important case, Lawrence v. Texas. For the case to be taken, at least four justices must want it. Based on the understanding I gained in writing "Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court," I think it’s likely at least four justices will welcome the Texas discrimination case as the wonderful opportunity that it is.

Only rarely does any institution get such a perfect chance to correct a mistake in judgment that has hurt countless people. Sixteen years ago, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick in a devastating ruling that said those of us who’re gay don’t have a right to privacy. Just three justices who participated in that 5-4 ruling are still serving: William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor, who both voted with the majority, and John Paul Stevens, who dissented.

Even back in 1986, that decision was out of step with the direction of the nation and was blasted by editorial pages and legal scholars. Most members of today’s court probably consider the anti-gay Hardwick decision, which reeked of prejudice, an embarrassing blemish on the court that they’d prefer to ignore.

But gently, carefully, the petition by Lambda attorney Ruth Harlow’s team walks the justices through the many ways that dreadful decision continues to harm all gay Americans, regardless of where we live. The existence of anti-sodomy laws is, for example, used as an excuse to deny lesbian mothers custody, deny gay workers jobs, oppose gay rights laws and block hate-crimes legislation.

Lambda gracefully challenges the court to fulfill the grand promise of "equal protection" that it gave gay Americans in its 6-3 Romer v. Evans ruling, which in 1996 struck down an anti-gay amendment to Colorado’s constitution: Because of their conviction, Lawrence and Garner are disqualified or restricted from dozens of professions in Texas—from physician to bus driver to interior designer—and would have to register as sex offenders if they moved to Idaho, Mississippi, Louisiana or South Carolina.

Winning the support of O’Connor—who, oddly, voted in the majority in both Hardwick and Romer—is the key to winning any gay Supreme Court case. So, I’ll give Gov. Jane Dee Hull—like O’Connor, a fairly conservative Arizona Republican—the final word. As Lambda notes, in signing the bill repealing her state’s sodomy law last year, Hull declared, "At the end of the day I returned to one of my most basic beliefs about government: It does not belong in our private lives."

  • Deb Price’s column is published on Monday. You can contact her at (202) 662-7370 or

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