Justice Kennedy: “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today.”

The Human Rights Campaign lauded the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling today that struck down discriminatory state sodomy laws in 13 states on the basis that they violate Americans' Constitutional right to privacy. The 6-3 decision in Lawrence v. Texas makes clear that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, says HRC.

“This is an historic day for fair-minded Americans everywhere,” said HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch. “We are elated and gratified that the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, has seen discriminatory state sodomy laws for what they are – divisive, mean-spirited laws that were designed to single out and marginalize an entire group of Americans for unequal treatment.”

The ruling – overturning state sodomy laws and the Court’s infamous 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision – removes the stigma and criminal brand that the laws have long placed on GLBT Americans. Sodomy laws have long been used as a basis for discrimination against GLBT Americans in employment opportunities, in custody and visitation rights and in myriad other aspects of ordinary life.

“Gay Americans are parents, children, brothers, sisters, friends, co-workers and church-goers. They make important contributions in every community in the country,” added Birch. “This ruling opens the door for new advances toward full equality and should be viewed as a challenge to legislators to help pass important legal protections for GLBT Americans – like employment non-discrimination laws and comprehensive hate crimes legislation.

“Lambda Legal deserves an enormous amount of credit for bringing this critical case to the highest level,” said Birch. “The GLBT community also owes a debt of gratitude to John Lawrence and Tyron Garner for letting their story be heard.”

In 1998, Lawrence and Garner pleaded no contest to breaking the Texas sodomy law, after police broke into Lawrence’s home in search of an armed intruder and discovered the two men engaged in intercourse. Both men were arrested and imprisoned overnight. They were fined $200 each and forced to pay court costs. The convictions barred them from holding several types of jobs in Texas and would have required them to register as sex offenders should they have moved to any of several other states. Lambda Legal asked the Supreme Court to hear the case and declare a violation of privacy and equal protection.

HRC signed onto a “friend of the court” brief written by the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers LLP that summarizes the direct and resulting harms caused by sodomy laws. The brief describes sodomy laws as outdated. It provides strong evidence that gays and lesbians are law-abiding, productive citizens who are healthy partners, good parents, patriotic veterans and sometimes heroic citizens. A variety of other civil rights organizations, religious groups, public health experts, historians and others have also either signed or filed briefs of their own in favor of repealing sodomy laws.

In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld sodomy laws 5-4 in Bowers v. Hardwick. Since the ruling, much has changed. Only three justices from that ruling remain on the bench. And the Georgia sodomy law, which was at issue in Hardwick, was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 1998. The late Justice Lewis Powell Jr., who joined the majority in Hardwick, expressed regret for voting to uphold the discriminatory Georgia law. “I think I probably made a mistake in that one,” Powell told law students in 1990.

“Justice Powell is looking down on us today and smiling,” said Birch. “We believe that some day, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Rehnquist, who joined in the dissent, will recognize their error.”

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, , John Paul Stevens and David Souter cast the majority votes. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote separately to say that she agreed that the Texas law should be invalidated but did not join in overturning Bowers. While the case was not decided on Equal Protection principles— the majority found that all Americans have a right to private consensual sexual conduct—the decision also states “Equality of treatment and the due process right to demand respect for conduct protected by the substantive guarantee of liberty are linked in important respects, and a decision on the latter point advances both interests.”

The ruling strikes down sodomy laws in Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

The Human Rights Campaign is the largest national lesbian and gay political organization with members throughout the country. It effectively lobbies Congress, provides campaign support and educates the public to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans can be open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community.


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