State Law Prohibiting Unmarried Cohabitation Challenged
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In North Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging a 200-year-old state law that bans unmarried couples from living together. More than a hundred thousand couples now do. And the plaintiff in the ACLU's suit says that she was forced to give up her job at a local sheriff's department because she shared a home with her boyfriend. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.
ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:
North Carolina is one of seven states with laws banning cohabitation, and Deborah Hobbs says that law cost her her job. Early last year Hobbs went to work as a police dispatcher in Pender County on the North Carolina coast. But according to her lawsuit, after two weeks on the job, the sheriff issued an ultimatum. Noting that Hobbs was living with her boyfriend, the sheriff said the two must either get married or find separate homes. Hobbs refused and says she was forced to leave her job. Jennifer Rudinger heads the North Carolina ACLU.
Ms. JENNIFER RUDINGER (North Carolina ACLU): Ms. Hobbs is just really surprised about this law existing, let alone the fact that she was forced out of her job for living with her boyfriend.
HOCHBERG: The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on Hobbs' behalf seeking to overturn the 1805 law that says unmarried men and women shall not, quote, "bed and cohabit together." Rudinger says the law infringes on people's freedom of association, expression and privacy.
Ms. RUDINGER: The idea that the government would criminalize people's choice to live together out of wedlock in this day and age really defies logic and common sense. That is a private decision between two people as to whether or not they want to get married and, really, not the government's role.
HOCHBERG: Pender County Sheriff Carson Smith has not spoken publicly about the case since the lawsuit was filed in March. But in an interview last year with the Wilmington, North Carolina, Star-News, the sheriff defended his action, saying Hobbs violated the law and calling it a moral issue. Pender County Commissioner David Williams is among the sheriff's supporters.
Commissioner DAVID WILLIAMS (Pender County, North Carolina): I certainly am not one to stand in judgment of Ms. Hobbs, but I know that the sheriff expects everyone that's under his employment to obey all laws.
HOCHBERG: Similar controversies occasionally have arisen in the six other states with cohabitation bans. Twice in the past three years North Dakota legislators have voted to keep their 115-year-old ban in place, defeating measures to repeal it. Republican legislator John Andrist concedes the law is frequently ignored but says it still sends an important message to North Dakota residents.
State Senator JOHN ANDRIST (Republican, North Dakota): Illegal cohabitation is not good. It's not good for society; it's not good for America. It's something that we're forced to accept, but, you know, I just don't like to say that we should condone it.
HOCHBERG: Many legal scholars, though, agree with the ACLU that state cohabitation bans are unconstitutional. Two years ago the Supreme Court overturned a Texas ban on sodomy. And Wake Forest University family law Professor Suzanne Reynolds says the same legal principles likely would apply to cohabitation.
Professor SUZANNE REYNOLDS (Wake Forest University): There is a liberty interest protected by the United States Constitution, and that extends to adults expressing themselves sexually as long as they're consenting and it's in private.
HOCHBERG: Only rarely are people arrested for cohabitation, a misdemeanor in North Carolina that could result in a $1,000 fine and 60 days in jail. But the state laws sometimes are enforced in child custody cases or invoked as a condition of probation. The ACLU says it's aware of no other cases where someone's lost a job for living together without a marriage license. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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