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The
case of Lawrence v. Texas involved
two men, John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner. Police were called to respond
to a reported weapons disturbance in Lawrence’s apartment. On entering the
apartment, police witnessed Lawrence and Garner engaging in a private and
consensual sexual act. The men were arrested under the Texas “Homosexual
Conduct” statute, this statute banned two people of the same sex engaging in
certain sexual acts, categorised as ‘sodomy’.

 

Lawrence
and Garner challenged their arrests and the statute as a violation of both the
Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. They took
their case to the State Court of Appeals where it was held that the statute was
not unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause. In the decision reached by
the Court of Appeals they relied on the precedent that was set by the Supreme
Court in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S 186
(1986) where the Court upheld the Georgia state law against sodomy after it
was challenged.

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In
Lawrence v. Texas, the court was
asked to make a decision on three things. Does the conviction under the “Homosexual
Conduct” law that criminalises certain sexual acts for same-sex but not
different-sex couples violate the Equal Protection Clause? Did Lawrence and
Garner have their right to liberty and privacy violated under the Due Process
Clause? Should the decision of Bowers v.
Hardwick be overruled?

 

It
was decided in a 6-3 opinion, delivered by Justice Kennedy that the decision in
Bowers should be overruled and the
State Court of Appeals ruling be reversed to hold that the “Homosexual Conduct”
law was a violation of the Due Process Clause. Justices Stevens, Souter,
Ginsburg and Breyer joined Justice Kennedy. Justice O’Connor filed a concurring
opinion, whilst Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice
Rehnquist and Thomas joined. Justice Thomas also filed his own dissenting
opinion.

 

Justice
Kennedy, in the majority opinion, stated that in Bowers v. Hardwick the court had failed to realise the true extent
of the liberties at stake when they ruled to uphold the sodomy laws. The penalties
associated with Bowers had far
reaching consequences that infringed upon the most private human behaviour, in
the most private place for a person, their home. Kennedy stated that there is a
promise in the constitution of an element of personal liberty that neither the
Court nor the Government can interfere with. The sexual act in question was
committed by two consenting adults in the privacy of the home. Lawrence and
Garner’s liberty and privacy had been violated.

 

Justice
O’Connor concurred with the Court judgement but found the sodomy laws unconstitutional
under the Equal Protection Clause. This was because the sodomy law banned “deviate
sexual intercourse” between same-sex couples but not different-sex couples and
the equal protection clause is “a direction that all persons similarly situated
should be treated alike” and attempts to justify the law by arguing it
furthered a legitimate state interest of morality were unconvincing (Oyez,
2017).

 

Initially,
the striking down of Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law was hailed as a huge
victory. It was thought that the ruling in the case would lead to the removal
of state sex-crime laws, anti-gay policies and start to pave the way for gay
marriage in America. Despite these high hopes, the case sparked no such
revolution. It is argued however, that the influence of the Lawrence case is far subtler, with a
widespread impact right from the perception of homosexual people, through to
bolstering reproductive rights cases that came before it.

 

In
the opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy, it was understood that after the
Lawrence ruling states must prove, in cases governing sexual conduct and sexual
acts, that someone is being harmed. Morality and public disapproval were no
longer considered valid grounds to justify rulings (Eskridge Jr, 2011).

 

Arguably
the most immediate impact of the Lawrence
decision was the decriminalising of sexual conduct between same-sex couples.
The case legalised gay sex, that alone was a huge step forward for the gay and
lesbian community, however, the Lawrence ruling
did more than just that. It helped to lift the huge legal stigma associated
with homosexuality. With sodomy laws still in place, same-sex couples had to
experience people assuming they were criminals because their sexual acts were
considered to be illegal. The illegality of the sexual act was being connected to
their sexual identity.

 

As
soon as the sodomy laws started being removed homosexual individuals and the
wider gay and lesbian community didn’t have to carry this burden with them, for
the first time being a homosexual was not a crime. Tribe (2004) argues that Lawrence became an example of how this
notion of criminality, even when it isn’t accompanied by many prosecutions, pushes
already ostracised and misunderstood individuals into stereotyped roles. The
outlawed act of sodomy came to represent the human identity of being homosexual
and this reinforced the cycle of alienating a group and creating a stigma that
only helped to preserve oppression.

 

In
June 2003, Lawrence started to put to
an end this vicious cycle of having a homosexual identity associated with a
crime. The gay and lesbian community could start to define itself more wholly
not just through their sexual conduct. They were able to define themselves with
the full range of emotions that make up the fundamental human identity of being
a gay or lesbian person (Wardenski, 2005; Eskridge 2004).

 

Not
only was Lawrence a big boost for gay
rights activists but it also helped to strengthen the footing of reproductive
rights cases and was a huge affirmation to the reproductive rights cases that
had been decided in Court before it. In the majority opinion of Lawrence Justice Kennedy relies heavily
on Planned Parenthood v. Casey 505 U.S
833 (1992) to justify the ruling. The most pertinent thing about the Casey ruling to the Lawrence case is that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s decision expressed
the most expansive understanding of liberty the Court had seen to that date.
The Court decision reaffirmed what was the central holding in Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113 (1972) that a
state may not prohibit abortion prior to foetal viability and reaffirming that
the Due Process Clause protects personal choice regarding family relationships
and a woman’s right to choose. Justice O’Connor notes that the matters
discussed in Casey involve the most
intimate and personal choices a person may make in their lifetime and are
central to personal dignity and personal autonomy. Most importantly, she
emphasises that it is a promise of the Constitution that there is a realm of
personal liberty which the government may not enter.

 

In
Lawrence (2003), the Court relied on
the expansive understanding of liberty and broadened it further deeming that
liberty presumes an autonomy of self, including things such as freedom of
thought and certain intimate conduct. This conduct can be just one element in a
more personal and enduring bond so it was ruled that this protected liberty
extended to gay and lesbian persons and gave them the right to make a choice.

 

In
reaffirming this expanded notion of liberty and personal autonomy Lawrence provided a stronger legal
footing than ever before for the heavily criticised line of reproductive rights
cases that it had grounded itself in. The very fact the case had been grounded
in the rulings of reproductive rights cases sent the message that the Court was
standing by the decisions made in these cases. The ruling of Lawrence helped to allay some of the
fears that there could be a reversal of Roe by giving it a solid legal footing
and further expanding the notion of liberty and personal autonomy to protect
even more people (Dailard, 2003)

 

In
terms of gay marriage, Lawrence has
had a significant and distinctive impact and has been used in the decision-making
process in a number of cases, most notably in the California cases Hollingsworth v. Perry (2011). This was a series of cases which led to the
legalising of same-sex marriage in California. Although it relied on its own
state constitution to rule Proposition 8 (the notion that marriage is for one
man and one woman only) unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause it
also relied heavily on Lawrence to say
that gay couples had a fundamental right to civil marriage. It went even
further by indirectly relying on Lawrence to say laws that make distinctions
based on people because of their sexual orientation will be placed under strict
scrutiny the same way laws involving race, sex and religion are. This was a
landmark case for marriage equality and Lawrence
was a key factor in the decision.

 

Overall
Lawrence succeeded in making America
a more gay-tolerant nation and since Lawrence
states have moved away from discriminating against gays and lesbians in a
number of areas. Gay teachers in school districts are discriminated less, as a
community they are better protected against hate crimes and parental rights
have improved with more same-sex couples being given the parental rights to
raise children together. Whilst it may not have made any one outstanding
contribution it has had a widespread influence across the social, political and
legal spheres.

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