Landmark Ruling for Gay Civil Rights: U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Texas 'Homosexual Conduct' Law

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June 26, 2003

(Washington, Thursday, June 26, 2003) - In the most significant ruling ever for lesbian and gay Americans’ civil rights, the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down Texas's "Homosexual Conduct” law, which criminalizes oral and anal sex by consenting gay couples and is used widely to justify discrimination against lesbians and gay men.


“Today the U.S. Supreme Court closed the door on an era of intolerance and ushered in a new era of respect and equal treatment for gay Americans,” said Ruth Harlow, Legal Director at Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund and lead counsel on the case. “This historic civil rights victory recognizes that love, sexuality and family play the same role in gay people’s lives as they do for everyone else.”

Lambda Legal represents John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who were arrested in Lawrence's Houston home and jailed overnight after officers responding to a false report from an acquaintance found the men engaged in private, consensual sex. Once convicted, they were forced to pay fines and are now considered sex offenders in several states. In addition to Texas, 12 states have consensual sodomy laws, some of which apply to straight and gay adults alike, but are invoked only against lesbians and gay men in everyday life.

“This ruling effectively strikes down the sodomy laws in every state that still has them -- but its impact is even broader. It will be a powerful tool for gay people in all 50 states where we continue fighting to be treated equally.” Harlow said. “For decades, these laws have been a major roadblock to equality. They’ve labeled the entire gay community as criminals and second-class citizens. Today, the Supreme Court ended that once and for all.”

The Supreme Court heard two constitutional issues in Lambda Legal’s case - whether the Texas law violates the Constitution’s right to privacy, and also whether it violates the Constitution’s guarantee that all Americans will be treated equally under the law. Today’s ruling focused on the first argument. Lambda Legal said today’s ruling effectively strikes down all 13 state sodomy laws as they apply to private, consensual intimacy and also establishes, for the first time, that lesbians and gay men have fundamental privacy rights.

Today’s decision overturns the Supreme Court’s devastating 1986 ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick. In that decision - which was laced with anti-gay language and has been used against gay people in most civil rights cases since -- the court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law in a case brought by a man who was arrested while having consensual sex in his home with another man.

“Today, the Supreme Court corrected one of its gravest mistakes. This ruling removes the terrible shadow cast over the gay community by the Supreme Court’s destructive and misguided decision 17 years ago,” Harlow said. “Today’s decision shows how far the gay community has come since 1986.”

“In addition to its great significance today, this ruling will be an important precedent for future cases as we push for full liberty and full equality in every aspect of gay people’s lives,” Harlow said. “This ruling starts an entirely new chapter in our fight for equality for lesbians and gay men.”

In addition to Harlow, Lambda Legal attorneys Patricia Logue and Susan Sommer, along with Brian Chase in Lambda Legal’s Dallas office, litigated the case. William M. Hohengarten, Paul M. Smith, Daniel Mach and Sharon McGowan from Jenner & Block, LLC in Washington, D.C., and Mitchell Katine from Williams, Birnberg & Andersen, L.L.P. in Houston, are Lambda Legal’s cooperating attorneys assisting on the case. For more background, go to Lambda Legal’s web resource center on the case at www.LambdaLegal.org/MakingHistory.

Contact: Eric Ferrero: 212/809-8585, x227; 888/987-1984 (pgr)
Lisa Hardaway: 212/809-8585, x266; 888/987-1971 (pgr)

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