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Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

Lawrence v. Texas

Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) is a landmark case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003.  The Court held that a Texas statute criminalizing intimate, consensual sexual conduct was a violation of the Due Process Clause.  The statute at issue originally criminalized any oral and anal sexual activity.  However, 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 more generally, was a repeat from 17 years earlier with the Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 187 (1986) decision.

In Bowers v. Hardwick, the Court held this activity was not constitutionally protected, and individuals could be arrested for engaging in consensual, sexually intimate acts in their own homes.  

In the majority opinion of Lawrence, Justice Kennedy began 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."  He added 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 added 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.  

Library Resources

  • Flagrant conduct: the story of Lawrence v. Texas: how a bedroom arrest decriminalized gay Americans, KF224.L39 C37 2012  
  • The case for gay rights: from Bowers to Lawrence and beyond, KF4754.5 .R525 2005

Video: Lawrence v. Texas