In 2003, 14 states in the United States had anti-sodomy laws. However, only four of them had been regularly enforcing those laws against homosexual conduct in particular. Under one such law in Texas, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested and charged on September 7th in 1998. Houston police had received a call that there was a weapons disturbance at Lawrence’s apartment. When police arrived, according to the officer on scene, Joseph Quinn, they found the two men, Lawrence and Garner having sexual intercourse. Later scrutiny of the night’s events led some people to question whether or not they were guilty of the charged conduct.
Both Lawrence and Garner were convicted of violating the Texas penal code, which stated that “a person commits an offense if he engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same-sex.” Lawrence appealed the convictions and the fines, saying that the charges represented a violation of both men’s right to privacy as well as the Equal Protection Clause in the Constitution. This was done at the urging of local gay rights activists and Lamda Legal, who believed that this case could be a test case for challenging anti-sodomy laws on a national level.
However, the 1986 Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hardwick had upheld a Georgia law that banned same-sex sodomy. Bound by this decision, the Texas Court of Appeals upheld the convictions. Lawrence and his attorney appealed to the highest possible court. In 2003, the Supreme Court took up the case seeking to answer three questions. First, whether a law that criminalized sexual intimacy between people of the same-sex but not of the opposite sex violates the Equal Protection Clause. Second, if the convictions for adult consensual sexual intimacy in the home violate interests in liberty and privacy protected by the Due Process Clause; and third, if the Court should overrule Bowers v. Hardwick.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the Texas statute violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. In her concurrence, Sandra Day O’Connor argued that the statute violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Writing for five of the justices in the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that under the Due Process Clause, the petitioners were free as adults to engage in private conduct. The majority opinion of the Court largely focused on why the Bowers decision made only 17 years prior was incorrect. The court cited the right to privacy for sexual choice set out by earlier decisions in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Eindstat v. Bard (1972). Furthermore, the Court found that laws directed at same-sex couple lacked a historical basis in the United States, despite the claims made in the Bowers decision. Those anti-sodomy laws still in place had only been added in the second half of the twentieth century and were rarely enforced. Lastly, the majority found that the ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick had already been undermined by two subsequent cases, Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Romers v. Evans.
Justice O’Connor wrote a concurring opinion in which she agreed that the law was unconstitutional, but based on the Equal Protection Clause and not the Due Process Clause. O’Connor wrote that the Texas sodomy law illegally treated the act separately based on the sex of the participants and allowed the state to brand all homosexual people as criminals. Justice O’Connor took issue with the state of Texas’ argument that moral disapproval was sufficient grounds for the law to pass rational basis scrutiny.
Three of the Justices dissented in the case. Justice Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Rheinquest and Justice Thomas. Justice Scalia wrote that the majority's decision to overturn could lead to an overturn of Roe v. Wade (1973), the case credited with legalizing abortion nationally. The Justice also cautioned that overturning Bowers had critical implications for the cases that had been decided since the decision and relied on the conclusion in that case. Justice Thomas also dissented and wrote that he joined Justice Scalia’s opinion in full but added that he could not find the right to privacy relied upon by the majority in the Bill of Rights.
Lawrence v. Texas was a critical part of the path to civil equality for LGBTQ people in the United States. The Court finally recognized their right to forge personal relationships and engage in private consensual sexual activity without fear of being criminalized. The Court’s decision in Lawrence was also seen as central to several states' decisions to strike down same-sex marriage bans, including in Massachusetts the same year that the majority made its ruling. Additionally, the case forced many states to reexamine laws whose only basis was upholding a sense of morality even if no one else was harmed. Many of those laws were struck down.