Lambda Legal marks 6th anniversary of landmark ruling

Posted on 18 Jun 2009 at 7:57pm
By David Taffet Staff Writer

Case that resulted in sodomy law being overturned was basis for several other rulings, including Iowa marriage decision


Dennis Coleman, executive director of Lambda Legal’s South Central Region

6TH ANNIVERSARY OF LAWRENCE V. TEXAS
WHEN: June 20 at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Eddie Deen’s Ranch, 944 S. Lamar St.
TICKETS: $50 in advance. $60 at the door.
INFORMATION: 214-219-8585.

Lambda Legal marks the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision with a celebration at Eddie Deen’s Ranch in Downtown Dallas on Saturday, June 20.

The 2003 decision overturned the Texas sodomy law.

Dennis Coleman, executive director of Lambda Legal’s South Central Region, says that the celebration is intended to recognize the fact that the lawsuit "decriminalized LGBT people."

Coleman said, "In some places we couldn’t adopt because we were considered criminals. We couldn’t be teachers, because we were considered criminals. We couldn’t talk about marriage because of the sodomy laws. The decision opened the floodgates of so many opportunities we take for granted."

He said that even he has to remind himself that just six years ago, "We could have been arrested for who we are."

That is exactly what happened in Houston to two gay men in September 1998, prompting the case.

Houston police responded to a call from a neighbor who claimed to have heard a gunshot coming from the apartment of John Lawrence. The gunshot report was false, but when police entered the apartment, they found Lawrence and Tyron Garner engaged in sex.

The two were arrested and jailed overnight. They were convicted under the Texas sodomy law, which made it illegal for two persons of the same sex to engage in oral or anal sex. Those same acts were legal for persons of the opposite sex.

In court, Lawrence and Garner were found guilty of violating the Texas sodomy law and fined $200. On appeal, Texas courts upheld the "Homosexual Conduct" law based on an earlier Supreme Court case, Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 ruling that left the Georgia sodomy law — which applied to both same-sex and opposite-sex conduct — in place.

In 2002, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to hear the case, Lambda Legal appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Paul Smith, the group’s lead attorney and now board co-chair, pleaded the case before the high court.

The high court found in favor of Lawrence and Garner in a sweeping decision. Rather than just invalidate the Texas law, they reversed the Bowers ruling and wiped similar statutes off the books in the 13 states that still had them.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said Bowers had been extraordinarily harmful to gay people’s struggles for liberty and equality.

Five justices declared all sodomy laws unconstitutional on privacy grounds. A sixth, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, concurred on grounds of equal protection.

She had been on the court voting with the majority in the Bowers case and refused to vote to overturn it.

The ruling was issued on June 26, 2003, two days short of the 34th anniversary of Stonewall.

Coleman calls Lawrence v. Texas "absolutely the most important decision since Stonewall."

The case has been cited in numerous other decisions including this year’s big Lambda Legal victory, Iowa’s unanimous same-sex marriage ruling.

Another Lambda Legal win that Coleman cites that built on the success of the Texas case was last year’s California Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in that state. That was the decision overturned in November by Proposition 8, but in that ruling, the California court found that gays and lesbians secured certain fundamental rights in Lawrence that cannot be taken away. They said that included the right to marriage.

Coleman says that despite the disappointment of voters overturning the ruling, that success in court is something to be celebrated and remains a judicial win that may be cited in future cases. Although the court recently upheld the validity of vote on the proposition, they did not alter their initial ruling in favor of same-sex marriage rights.

Upcoming litigation based on the Lawrence decision includes a challenge to the military’s anti-gay "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy that keeps gays and lesbians from serving openly.

In that case, an appeals court has already ruled, "the government must advance an important governmental interest" to maintain the policy.

Coleman says the celebration on Saturday is the signature event for the South Central Region of Lambda Legal.

He hopes to educate people about the importance of the Lawrence v. Texas victory and celebrate how it’s been built upon.

Bill Prather and Eric Johnson co-chair the Saturday celebration.

Openly gay Fort Worth City Council member Joel Burns and openly gay Dallas District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons will be the keynote speakers.

Admission includes a buffet barbecue dinner and two drinks.

On the entertainment line-up are line-dancing with Juanita from the Round-Up Saloon and the Dallas Tap Dazzlers, a jazz-tap ensemble whose members are at least 45 years old. Nationally, the group has appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

Tickets are available through the Lambda Legal office or at the door.

E-mail taffet@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2009.

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