ACLU History: Lawrence v. Texas: A Watershed for Gay Rights


Despite the many important advances of the 1980s and 1990s, the Supreme Court's infamous Bowers v. Hardwick decision allowed those in courts of law – and in the court of public opinion – to say that LGBT people were not entitled to equality because their love makes them criminals. Lower courts relied on Bowers to take away or limit custody to gay parents and to uphold firing or refusing to hire gay people. The case was also invoked in legislative debates as a reason not to protect gay people from discrimination.

Those arguments – which had been a serious block to progress – were put to an end in 2003 with the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which overruled Bowers in unusually strong terms. In sweeping language, the Court said the Constitution protects the right of gay people to form intimate relationships and 'retain their dignity as free persons.' Gay people have the same right to 'define one's concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,' that heterosexuals do. The Bowers decision, the Court said, 'demeans the lives of homosexual persons' and was no longer valid.

The plaintiffs in the case, two Texas men arrested under the state's sodomy law, were represented by Lambda Legal; the ACLU submitted an amicus brief that was cited in the historic opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy.



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