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Lawrence v. Texas, 539 US 558 (2003)

In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned a Texas sodomy law, holding that private consensual sex between adults is a fundamental liberty protected by the Constitution under the doctrine of substantive due process.

Lawrence overturned the Court's earlier decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 US 186 (1986), that upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law on the basis that there is no constitutional protection for sexual privacy.

In the opinion of the Court, Justice Kennedy wrote that the majority can not use the power of the state to enforce its views on the whole society through the operation of criminal law. In other words, religious groups are not entitled to force their moral beliefs on others through legislation.

Kennedy wrote:

"The condemnation has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law. "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code." Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, 850 (1992)."

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Lawrence v. Texas, 539 US 558 (2003)

Answer

In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned a Texas sodomy law, holding that private consensual sex between adults is a fundamental liberty (people have a fundamental right to privacy) protected by the Constitution under the doctrine of substantive due process.

Lawrence overturned the Court's earlier decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 US 186 (1986), that upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law on the basis that there is no constitutional protection for sexual privacy.

Explanation

Police were alerted to a weapons disturbance at an apartment complex, and entered petitioner Lawrence's residence to investigate. Inside, they discovered Lawrence and another man, Garner, engaging in a private, consensual sexual act. Both men were arrested as sexual deviants under a Texas sodomy law designed to criminalize homosexual behavior.

The men were convicted, and the Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District, affirmed, basing their decision on the US Supreme Court's earlier decision in Bowers v. Hardwick,(1986).

The US Supreme Court reversed on appeal and overturned the Texas law as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause. The Court further noted that the Bowers Court, in ruling that the Constitution doesn't confer "a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy..." had failed to appreciate the extent of liberty at stake.

Justice Kennedy, delivering the opinion of the Court, observed that the law sought to prevent a particular act, but in so doing violated the fundamental privacies of human intimacy and sexual behavior in the most private of places, the home. The Bowers Court focused on a particular act, and not the implication of restricting a broad category of human rights.

Kennedy also noted that society's attitude toward criminalizing homosexual acts had evolved in the years since the Bowers decisions. In 1986, twenty-five states had anti-sodomy statutes; by 2003, only thirteen states still criminalized the act. Of these, only four enforced their statutes.

The Court also expressed its opinion about legislating morality, and the role of the Court in upholding statutes that proscribe sexual behavior in the absence of a compelling state interest:

Justice Kennedy, in the opinion of the Court:

"The Bowers Court was, of course, making the broader point that for centuries there have been powerful voices to condemn homosexual conduct as immoral, but this Court's obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate its own moral code, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, 850. The Nation's laws and traditions in the past half century are most relevant here. They show an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex."

and

"In his dissenting opinion in Bowers Justice Stevens concluded that '(1) the fact that a State's governing majority has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice, and (2) individual decisions concerning the intimacies of physical relationships, even when not intended to produce offspring, are a form of "liberty" protected by due process.' That analysis should have controlled Bowers, and it controls here. Bowers was not correct when it was decided, is not correct today, and is hereby overruled. This case does not involve minors, persons who might be injured or coerced, those who might not easily refuse consent, or public conduct or prostitution. It does involve two adults who, with full and mutual consent, engaged in sexual practices common to a homosexual lifestyle. Petitioners' right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in private conduct without government intervention. Casey, supra, at 847. The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the individual's personal and private life."

"The condemnation has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law. "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code." Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, 850 (1992)."

Justice O'Connor, who participated in the Bowersdecision, concurred in judgment with Lawrence, stating:

"This case raises a different issue than Bowers: whether, under the Equal Protection Clause, moral disapproval is a legitimate state interest to justify by itself a statute that bans homosexual sodomy, but not heterosexual sodomy. It is not. Moral disapproval of this group, like a bare desire to harm the group, is an interest that is insufficient to satisfy rational basis review under the Equal Protection Clause."

Even Justice Thomas, who dissented from the majority opinion, wrote:

"I write separately to note that the law before the Court today "is ... uncommonly silly." Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U. S. 479, 527 (1965) (Stewart, J., dissenting). If I were a member of the Texas Legislature, I would vote to repeal it. Punishing someone for expressing his sexual preference through noncommercial consensual conduct with another adult does not appear to be a worthy way to expend valuable law enforcement resources."

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