Court Gets Chance to Ban Sodomy Laws
July 29, 2002
615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226
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 www.lambdalegal.org.)
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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