More than sodomy

The Supreme Court is hearing a case challenging a Texas law against "homosexual conduct," but the real issue is whether the government can regulate private lives in the first place.

Published March 26, 2003 8:16PM (EST)

Conservatives and liberals alike have tended to avoid public debate about Lawrence vs. Texas, a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court that challenges a Texas law criminalizing "homosexual conduct" -- that is, sex between consenting adults of the same gender. The law is fundamentally un-American, but instead of opposition spanning the political spectrum, there have been the familiar unprincipled divisions along partisan lines.

Ostensibly, the question in the case will be whether the Constitution protects a "right" to homosexual conduct. But superficial concern obscures a more fundamental question too often ignored in constitutional cases: Does the government have the power to regulate people's private lives in the first place?

This difference is not just a matter of semantics. The Declaration of Independence, which establishes the ethical foundation of American government, states that government exists to secure broad rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and gains its "just powers" from the "consent of the governed." The government, in other words, must establish its authority to act; individuals do not.

Modern constitutional jurisprudence turns this principle on its head. As the Texas court saw it, the question was whether Mr. Lawrence could establish a "fundamental" right to homosexual sodomy. Since no such right has ever been recognized, the court upheld the law. Had the court sought to make a ruling consistent with America's founding principles, it would have required the state to justify its decision to outlaw the conduct in this case.

Lawrence and his partner are consenting adults who were engaged in private conduct within the confines of Lawrence's home. They were harming no one. While it is true that laws against sodomy have a long history in this country, so does the principle that governmental power is inherently limited. The touchstone of that limitation is harm to some identifiable third party. Since Texas can show no such harm -- indeed, it didn't even try to do so -- it has no power to enter this sphere of individual conduct.

Conservatives often suggest that the states can pass laws that express the moral sentiments of a majority of the community and that the courts have no authority to intervene in those democratic decisions. But all laws are passed by democratic processes and can be said to express the moral sentiments of the community. Texas claims, in essence, that laws do not need any real justification. That is a claim that everyone -- conservatives included -- should find dangerous.

Conservatives, especially, ought to be wary of casting their lot with the states on this issue. If the states can ban purely private conduct between consenting adults, what is to keep them from banning home schooling, for instance, or instituting mandatory preschool, or requiring parents to follow certain nutritional guidelines for their children? Conservatives who condone a process that leads us down this path need to start asking themselves what exactly it is they are trying to conserve.

Unfortunately, the left's approach is no better. Where conservatives extol the virtues of the state's governmental power when it comes to certain moral or lifestyle issues, the left extols the virtues of governmental power when it comes to regulations of property and economic affairs. Both sides love governmental power when it suits their immediate agenda, but both ought to realize that this approach is only as good as one's ability to control a particular legislature. The left ought to recognize that it cannot pick and choose which aspects of individual liberty are beyond governmental power. Privacy is worth very little if one has no property on which to practice it.

America is the only country founded on the principles of individual rights and limited government. Governmental power must be limited if we are to live in a free society. Until everyone, of every political persuasion, takes this principle to heart, cases such as Lawrence vs. Texas will amount to little more than political battles over one more "right," while the war over the proper role of government in our lives rages on.

By Dana Berliner

Dana Berliner is a lawyer with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice.

MORE FROM Dana Berliner

By Steve Simpson

Steve Simpson is a lawyer with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice.

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