Last edited: January 01, 2005

Gays Overjoyed, Conservatives Despair Over Sodomy Ruling

San Jose Mercury News, June 26, 2003
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By Lisa Leff, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO—In a gesture of gratitude for the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday striking down a Texas anti-sodomy law, gay-rights activists lowered the huge rainbow flag that always flies over the city’s Castro District and hoisted the Stars and Stripes in its place.

Members of a local American Legion Post made up of gay men unfurled the American flag, then saluted and sang the “Star-Spangled Banner,” as residents marveled that a goal they had been seeking for so long had been realized.

“The symbolism of the nation’s highest court recognizing the validity of gay relationships is just really important for the community because it shows we live in a society where we can create change with laws, not violence,” said Geoffrey Kors, director of Equality California.

The noontime flag-raising ceremony marked only the second time that the American flag has been raised at Harvey Milk Plaza, a landmark honoring the city’s first openly gay supervisor, who was assassinated in 1978. The first time was in tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The high court’s 6-3 decision overturned not only the Texas statute but apparently swept away laws in a dozen other states that ban oral and anal sex for everyone, or for homosexuals in particular.

The case involved two men who were jailed overnight and ordered to pay $200 fines in 1998 after police, responding to a false complaint of an armed intruder, entered their apartment and discovered them having sex in their bedroom.

“We never chose to be public figures or to take on the spotlight. We also never thought we could be arrested this way,” said one of the men, John Lawrence. “We are glad this ruling not only lets us get on with our lives, but opens the door for all gay people to be treated equally.”

Gay-rights groups had regarded the challenge to the law banning certain sex acts between same-sex couples as one of their most important legal cases in decades. On Thursday, they said the high court’s ruling would help protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in other areas as well.

“For years, whenever we have sought equality, we’ve been answered both in courts of law and in the court of public opinion with the claim that we are not entitled to equality because our love makes us criminals,” said James Esseks, litigation director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “That argument—which has been a serious block to progress—is now a dead letter.”

While gay men and lesbians across the country similarly exulted over the high court’s ruling, conservative groups, spurred on by Justice Antonin Scalia’s blistering dissent, predicted the ruling would lead to gay marriage—and worse.

“The implications for other sexual crimes is unmistakable,” said Scott Lively, director of the Pro Family Law Center in Sacramento, which filed a brief supporting the Texas law. “If the state doesn’t have even a legitimate interest in criminalizing sodomy ... how can the state continue to regulate against group sexual encounters, sadomasochism, sex between brothers and sisters, sex with animals and sex with corpses?”

But Ruth Harlow, who argued the case before the Supreme Court as legal director of Lambda Legal, said the court was merely “catching up” with public opinion.

The Supreme Court was criticized by civil rights groups 17 years ago when it upheld Georgia’s sodomy law. Georgians later repealed that law, and now, “82 percent of Americans have already expressed the view that these kinds of laws are inappropriate. State after state have repealed them,” she said.

Reaction was especially strong in those states with sodomy laws still on the books—Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

“It could have been a historic day just for Texas, but it’s a historic day, period,” said Paul Scott, executive director of the Dallas-based John Thomas Gay and Lesbian Community Resource Center.

The president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, John Giles, agreed with Justice Anthony Kennedy that personal privacy should be protected, but said he worries that the decision will further a national campaign to legalize marriage between gays.

“God have mercy on America,” he said.

In Missouri, gay-rights activists who have spent years lobbying state lawmakers to repeal that state’s sodomy law said it was great to have the Supreme Court finish the job.

“This is something that has been a black eye on our Supreme Court and our country and in Missouri for years,” said Jeff Wunrow, executive director of PROMO, a Missouri gay rights organization.

Mathew D. Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.-based religious rights group, said cultural conservatives would not let the decision stand unchallenged.

“The split decision underscores the importance of the next Supreme Court appointment, not only on the issue of abortion but now on the issue of same-sex unions,” he said. “Regulating homosexual conduct and marriage is the right of the people to be exercised through the legislative rather than judicial branches of government.”

Scalia noted that in the past half-century, there have been 134 reported cases involving prosecutions for consensual, adult, homosexual sodomy. Though seldom enforced by police in recent years, the Texas law and its cousins are still invoked by judges at times to deny homosexuals legal custody of their children, equal employment guarantees and other civil rights.

That the high court’s ruling came in June, the month traditionally reserved for gay pride celebrations across the country, made the victory all the more sweet for gay rights advocates.

“It’s hard for gay people to explain how freeing it is that our lovemaking has been recognized as no longer illegal in a place we call America,” said Terry Anderson, 44, as he watched the flag getting raised in San Francisco.

Gay advocacy groups from Alaska to Florida planned to celebrate into the night.

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