Proposition 8 Through the Prism of Lawrence v. Texas

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Perry v. Brown pushes hard to apply Romer v. Evans to the Prop 8 litigation.  The panel noted that the grant of full marital and parental rights to same-sex couples, while simultaneously denying them the word “marriage,” excised gay couples and their children with “surgical precision.” But such narrowness was not the problem in Romer; it was the breadth of a law denying a single class all civil-rights protections proved troubling.  Narrowness is usually a virtue in rational-basis review.  How, then, does one explain why a very precise law is unconstitutional?

In an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times, I suggest a connection between Perry and Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the Texas “Homosexual Counduct” law.  While Perry was as an equal protection case, the due process holding of Lawrence actually seems closer to the “surgical precision” concern than does the equal protection holding in Romer.  Here is an excerpt from the op-ed:

If Proposition 8 is ultimately declared constitutionally unacceptable by the Supreme Court, it might have to reach beyond Romer, to a decision mentioned only sparingly by the 9th Circuit. That is the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, which struck down a law banning homosexual sex.

The sorry history of this country’s legalized discrimination against homosexuals is striking for the absence of reasoned justifications, for arbitrary lines between conduct allowed and conduct forbidden, and for a tendency to use the asserted immorality of homosexual acts to justify widespread opprobrium of homosexuals. History certainly suggests that an unreasoning prejudice or aversion motivated some laws shutting out gay people.

Texas, for example, prohibited gay sex in 1973 in a so-called homosexual conduct law, but in the very same year the state legalized consensual heterosexual sodomy, adultery and even bestiality. One Texas appeals court judge, a Republican and self-described “country lawyer” who had no schooling in gay rights causes, saw that contradiction as nonsense. In an interview about the Lawrence case, he told me that when it reached his court, he wondered how the state could justify a surgically precise ban on gay sex.

“I kept thinking that if they decriminalized all those things that one would normally say are immoral, then why did they leave this one in? There had to be a reason,” he recalled thinking, obviously still baffled. “And nobody could explain to me why.”

In Lawrence, the court ruled that the state could not impose the majority’s moral code on homosexuals. It could not “demean their existence or control their destiny” by driving them away from relationships. Homosexuals, the court observed, enter relationships for the same reasons heterosexuals do: to share intimacy with a partner, to show affection and obligation, to have and raise children, to establish a place they call home and to love people they call family. California recognized this reality through its broad domestic partnership law.

But just as Texas prosecutors could no longer explain in constitutionally acceptable terms why the law excluded homosexuals from an otherwise transformed codification of sexual morality, the proponents of Proposition 8 cannot explain the titular exclusion of gay couples from an otherwise transformed landscape of family law and marital practice. California has, for very good reasons, abandoned a seamless worldview of legally recognized relationships from which gay couples and their families must be absented. Proposition 8 in California, like the homosexual conduct law in Texas, is an anachronism.