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A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: Lawrence v. Texas

This guide focuses on the civil rights that various groups have fought for within the United States.

Lawrence v. Texas

Lawrence v. Texas 539 U.S. 558 (2003) is a landmark Supreme Court case holding that a Texas statute criminalizing intimate, consensual sexual conduct was a violation of the Due Process Clause. While the statute at issue originally criminalized any oral and anal sexual activity, it was rewritten to apply only to homosexual conduct.  

Lambda Legal represented the defendants. Their goal was to not only challenge the Texas statute, but also all 13 laws still enforceable in states. The defendants pled no contest from the beginning, which allowed them to challenge the law without disputing the facts. The risk for the defendants and the LGBTQ community were reminiscent of the the Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 187 (1986) decision from 17 years earlier. In Bowers v. Hardwick the Court held consensual, sexually intimate acts were not constitutionally protected, and individuals could be arrested for engaging in these activities in their own homes.  

In the majority opinion of Lawrence, Justice Kennedy opened with the following lines:

Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the State should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. The instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.

He made clear that adults are free to engage with one another in the privacy of their own homes "without intervention of the government", adding that the

Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual". The Court stated that "Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowers v. Hardwick should be and now is overruled.  

The Court reiterated the principles outlined in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992):

our laws and tradition afford constitutional protection to personal decisions related to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education."  And continued by stating that "[p]ersons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for these purposes, just as heterosexual persons do.  The decision in Bowers would deny them this right.

The language of the Lawrence decision provided a foundation that has allowed for continued progress in civil rights for the LGBTQ community.  


Selected Library Resources:

  • Carlos A. Ball, From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation, KF4754.5.A53 B35 2010 
  • David A. J. Richards, The Case for Gay Rights: From Bowers to Lawrence and BeyondKF4754.5 .R525 2005


Overruled! The Case that Brought Down Sodomy Laws (Lambda Legal)