WASHINGTON - In an historic decision with wide-ranging implications, the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a Texas law that makes some kinds of sexual intimacy a crime, but only for gay people.

The decision overrules the court's 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, which was widely condemned for treating gay people as second-class citizens. It was hailed by the American Civil Liberties Union as a major milestone in the fight for constitutional rights.

"This decision will affect virtually every important legal and social question involving lesbians and gay men," said James Esseks, Litigation Director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "For years, whenever we have sought equality, we've been answered both in courts of law and in the court of public opinion with the claim that we are not entitled to equality because our love makes us criminals. That argument - which has been a serious block to progress -- is now a dead letter." Esseks added, "from now on, cases and political debates about employment, custody and the treatment of same-sex couples should be about merit, not about who you love."

In sweeping language, the Court said the Constitution protects the right of gay people to form intimate relationships and "retain their dignity as free persons." Gay people, the Court said, have the same right to "define one's concept of existence, of meaning, or the universe, and of the mystery of human life," that heterosexuals do. The Bowers decision, the Court said, "demeans the lives of homosexual persons."

Since 1986, lower courts have relied on Bowers v. Hardwick to take away or limit custody to gay parents and to uphold firing or refusing to hire gay people. Bowers has frequently been invoked in legislative debates as a reason not to protect gay people from discrimination.

"With this decision, the Court has finally recognized that we are part of the American family. Now it's time for the rest of society to do the same," Esseks said. "Our civil rights laws need to make the workplace fair, our schools safe, and to give basic respect to the relationships at the core of our lives--with our partners and our children. By acknowledging that we are not criminals, this decision will make it far easier for us to get society to change."

In an 18-page opinion, the Court held that the Texas law violates the fundamental right to privacy protected by the U.S. Constitution. The decision means that similar laws against sexual intimacy in the 12 other states that have them are also invalid. These include laws in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma that apply only to gay people as well as laws in Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Utah, which make "sodomy" a crime for all people.

"Justice Brandeis said over 75 years ago that the 'right to be let alone' is the right most valued by civilized people, and most Americans agree," said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. "This decision is all the more important because it comes at a time when the right to privacy is under one of the greatest assaults it has ever faced."

“Michigan’s sodomy law can no longer be used to discriminate against gay people,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan.  “Even though technically the law has always applied to all couples, straight and gay, the courts and agencies have treated it as if it were a justification for discrimination against gay people.  They can’t do that anymore.”

The Court overruled its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick in unusually strong terms. "Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today," the Court said.   Bowers was an ACLU challenge to Georgia's "sodomy" law, which applied to all couples. In Bowers, the Court held that the right to privacy did not invalidate Georgia's sodomy law.

"Although Georgia's sodomy law applied to straight and gay couples," said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the ACLU, "the Court treated it as a case about the constitutionality of laws making same-sex intimacy a crime." The lower courts, Shapiro explained, "understood Bowers to permit discrimination against gay people in criminal laws and in many other areas as well. This decision establishes that the state has no place in anybody's bedroom, straight or gay."

It is not immediately clear what effect the Court's decision will have on Matthew Limon, whose case is still pending before the Supreme Court. Limon, who is represented by the ACLU, was convicted of having consensual oral sex with another male when they were both teenagers. Had the other teenager been a girl, Limon would be serving no more than a 15-month sentence. Because the other teenager was boy, Kansas law required that Limon be sentenced to 17 years in Kansas state prison. Limon's case is based not on the right to privacy, but on the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law. However, the Kansas Courts relied on Bowers in rejecting Limon's appeal. The Supreme Court could send his case back to the Kansas courts, which should free him.

The ACLU has developed a public education campaign designed to help LGBT people take advantage of this historic decision to push for equality. To support the campaign, the ACLU has launched a new website, www.aclu.org/getequal, that provides tools for fighting anti-gay discrimination, making schools safer for LGBT youth and getting equality for LGBT relationships.

The petitioners in Lawrence, two Texas men who were arrested after police broke into their home to investigate an anonymous tip that turned out to be false, were represented by Lambda Legal.