Intimate Liberties and Antidiscrimination Law

70 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2017  

Deborah A. Widiss

Indiana University Maurer School of Law

Date Written: 2017


In assessing laws that regulate marriage, procreation, and sexual intimacy, the Supreme Court has recognized a “synergy” between guaranteeing personal liberties and advancing equality. Courts interpreting the antidiscrimination laws that govern the private sector, however, often draw artificial and untenable lines between “conduct” and “status” to preclude protections for individuals or couples who face censure because of their intimate choices. This Article exposes how these arguments have been used to justify not only discrimination against the lesbian and gay community, but also discrimination against heterosexual couples who engage in non-marital intimacy or non-marital childrearing.

During the 1980s and 1990s, several state supreme courts held that landlords who refused to rent to unmarried couples were responding to unprotected conduct (i.e., non-marital intimacy) rather than engaging in impermissible discrimination on the basis of marital status. Similar arguments are made today in cases concerning same-sex couples who are denied wedding-related services or unmarried pregnant women who are fired. This Article argues such decisions misconstrue the relevant statutory language, and it shows how modern constitutional doctrine should inform the interpretation of private antidiscrimination law to offer more robust protections for intimate liberties.

This Article also addresses whether antidiscrimination protections related to intimacy can be enforced despite objections premised on religious beliefs. Some courts, as well as the Trump Administration, have suggested that statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of marital status or sexual orientation serve less “compelling” interests than provisions prohibiting race discrimination. This argument is deeply flawed. Courts have long recognized that statutes intended to eliminate discrimination serve compelling purposes, even when they address factors that do not trigger strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause. The compelling nature of antidiscrimination laws related to intimate liberties should be especially obvious: They protect individuals’ freedom to make fundamentally important choices that are central to personal dignity and autonomy.

Keywords: Masterpiece Cakeshop; LGBT; intimacy; discrimination; religious liberty; gay rights; non-marital pregnancy; cohabitation

Suggested Citation

Widiss, Deborah A., Intimate Liberties and Antidiscrimination Law (2017). Boston University Law Review, Vol. 97, 2017; Indiana Legal Studies Research Paper No. 383. Available at SSRN:

Deborah A. Widiss (Contact Author)

Indiana University Maurer School of Law ( email )

211 S. Indiana Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States

Register to support our free research


Paper statistics

Abstract Views