Anti-cohabitation law under legal fire

TUESDAY, MAY 10, 2005

RALEIGH, N.C. – There are some 144,000 unmarried couples living together in North Carolina, and they are all breaking the law – a statute that has been on the books since 1805.

The law against cohabitation is rarely enforced. But now the American Civil Liberties Union is suing to overturn it altogether, on behalf of a former sheriff’s dispatcher who says she had to quit her job because she wouldn’t marry her live-in boyfriend.

Deborah Hobbs, 40, says her boss, Sheriff Carson Smith of Pender County, near Wilmington, told her to get married, move out or find another job after he found out she and her boyfriend had been living together for three years.

The couple didn’t want to get married, so Hobbs quit.

Her lawsuit, filed in March, seeks to have the law declared unconstitutional.

The sheriff said last year that Hobbs’ employment was a moral issue as well as a legal question. He said he tries to avoid hiring people who openly live together, but he doesn’t send out deputies to enforce the law.

Hobbs, who is still living with her boyfriend, declined to be interviewed.

Rudinger and other experts believe a 2003 Supreme Court ruling striking down a Texas anti-sodomy law may undermine North Carolina’s cohabitation law, which carries a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 60 days in jail.

North Carolina is one of seven states that still have laws on the books prohibiting cohabitation of unmarried couples. The others are Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and North Dakota. North Carolina appears to be the only state where the law is being challenged.

The Virginia Supreme Court in January responded to the Lawrence v. Texas decision by striking down that state’s rarely enforced state law prohibiting sex between unmarried people. But a Virginia law against cohabitation remains on the books.

In January, the North Dakota House defeated a challenge to its cohabitation law on a 52-37 vote.

There were roughly three dozen cohabitation-related charges filed in North Carolina between 1997 and 2004, according to state figures. But the number of people actually convicted under the law – formally known as the fornication and adultery statute – is not clear, said Patrick Tamer, a statistician with the North Carolina court system.


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