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Some still run afoul of the law

Sharon Jayson USA Today

The almost 1 million unmarried heterosexual Americans who live together in Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia are violating state laws against “lewd and lascivious” cohabitation.

Such laws are remnants of an earlier era; North Carolina’s is vintage 1805. And although they remain on the books, anti-cohabitation laws are rarely enforced.

But a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of North Carolina’s statute is making its way through the courts and is drawing new attention to these old laws.

“The idea that government criminalizes people’s choice to live together out of wedlock in this day and age defies logic and common sense,” says Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which filed suit on behalf of Debora Hobbs.

Hobbs is an unmarried woman who lost her job with the Pender County Sheriff’s Department because she and her boyfriend live together. Representatives for both Hobbs and Sheriff Carson Smith say neither is discussing the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in March to overturn the North Carolina law; the case probably will be scheduled for a hearing this fall, Rudinger says.

Hobbs “is continuing to live with her boyfriend because she believes it’s her constitutional right,” Rudinger says.

Such laws haven’t been scrapped largely because lawmakers have more pressing matters to consider, says Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

An attempt to repeal a similar law in North Dakota failed earlier this year.

“The public perception is that people who live together who are not married who have intimate relations are violating the cohabitation law,” says Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. He says the laws usually are not prosecuted, but challenges come up when they are cited by landlords as a reason for not renting to cohabiting couples or by government agencies refusing licenses.

He also cites the case of a day care operator whose license was initially rejected because she was cohabiting; she got her license after an ACLU challenge.

Donnie Biggs, 24, a photographer, and Meghan Montgomery, 25, an accountant, moved in together in Arlington, Va., after having a long-distance relationship of almost five years. Biggs was unaware of Virginia’s law and says it’s “old-fashioned.”

“You should be allowed to live like you want to live,” he says.

Montgomery says she knew about her state’s law because she read about it in relation to the case in North Carolina.

“It’s one of the many ridiculous rules that no one has taken the time to change,” she says. “It made me wonder if they do enforce it and how they think they actually could.”

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