Lawrence v. Texas

Lawrence v. Texas

Lawrence v. Texas


Lawrence v. Texas was a cornerstone legal case in which the U.S. Supreme Court (by a majority of 6–3) on June 26, 2003, ruled that a Texas state law criminalizing certain intimate sexual conduct between two consenting adults of the same sex was unconstitutional.

The precedent meant that sodomy laws in a dozen other states were thereby invalidated.


The decision overturned the court’s previous ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), a case which had upheld Georgia’s sodomy law.

Bowers v. Hardwick was decided during the intense fear and scape-goating of the AIDS epidemic and had constitutionally ratified the presumptive criminal status of “homosexuals.” 

Lawrence v. Texas New York Times cutting.

Gay rights activists hailed the verdict as a historic day in the evolution of civil rights in the US, while conservatives and the right castigated the decision as a sign of the country’s moral decay.


Lawrence v. Texas ‘Fag Court’ sign. Rick Bowmer / AP Photo



On September 17, 1998, police in Houston, Texas, dispatched on a weapons disturbance complaint entered the apartment of John Lawrence, a medical technician.


The complaint came from a neighbour who told the police that, because of a domestic fight or a robbery, there was a man with a gun “going crazy.”

Police entered the unlocked apartment with guns drawn. (The lack of a warrant did not figure in any of the subsequent litigation.) Once in the apartment the police found Lawrence engaging in consensual sex with a companion, Tyron Garner.


Police arrested both men, held them in custody overnight, and then charged them under a Texas criminal statute that forbade “deviate sexual intercourse” between people of the same sex.

Left: Mug shot of John Lawrence. Right: Mug shot of Tyron Garner. Both are from September 1998. Via Americanhistory, Courtesy of Dale Carpenter.

They were tried, found guilty, and fined $200 each.


At the time, 13 states had such laws. Child custody, work, and housing protections for gays and lesbians were unavailable in most states. In the majority of states, a person could be fired from a job simply for being gay. 


The neighbour, who had earlier been accused of harassing Lawrence and with whom Garner was also romantically involved, later admitted that he had been lying, pleaded no contest to charges of filing a false police report, and served 15 days in jail.


The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national legal organization dedicated to gay rights, took up Lawrence’s case and appealed it through the Texas court system on the grounds that it violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (which prohibited the states from denying “to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”) and a similar clause of the Texas state constitution.


The plaintiffs lost at each stage, with the courts looking to its previous ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick.

Lambda believed, however, persisted and justices accepted the case on December 2, 2002, and heard oral arguments on March 26, 2003.


This case eventually became the momentous Supreme Court decision known as Lawrence v. Texas, announced on June 26, 2003. 

Sources: Britannica, Wikipedia.