We are a family

Black Jack, Mo., says no marriage certificate, no home. The Shelltrack-Lovings are fighting back.

Published March 23, 2006 10:46PM (EST)

People magazine (premium content) reports on a town that is shaping up to be the latest frontier in the war on family values, Black Jack, Mo., "where a 1998 city ordinance will not allow more than three 'unrelated' individuals to share a single residence." People tells the story of Olivia Shelltrack and Fondray Loving, who have been together for 13 years, are raising their three children together, but, because they are not married, were denied a home-occupancy permit because it would violate the city ordinance.

The Shelltrack-Lovings are engaged, but for financial reasons have put off a wedding so that they can buy a home and start a business. Despite the ordinance, they are determined to stay in Black Jack and are prepared to fight in court if necessary. Shelltrack told People that Black Jack is "perfect -- if the people on the city council would just not tell me I need a piece of paper from the courthouse to prove we're a family." Other families have opted not to fight; at least three cohabitating couples with children have been forced out because of the ordinance.

Last fall Andrea Hyde, her partner and their two children moved away when denied a permit. "We could've fought it and won," said Hyde, "but it came down to the question if we really wanted to live in a city that holds this kind of prejudice against people just because they're not married." Salon spoke with the city clerk's office this afternoon, which said that the Planning and Zoning Commission (a committee of residents) is currently reviewing the ordinance and will make a recommendation to the City Council, which will vote on the matter April 26.

According to People, most proponents of the ordinance say it is "designed to safeguard residential neighborhoods from everything from fraternities and group homes to crack houses." Yet, this kind of rule easily crosses the line into discriminatory zoning. Black Jack Mayor Norman McCourt, who strongly supports the ordinance, insists that "it's about overcrowding, and has nothing to do with family values or religion." Sure, if by "overcrowding" you mean gay families or immigrants who rely on living in larger groups to afford housing, and who fall outside of Black Jack's economically and heterosexually biased definition. And it seems unlikely that the Shelltrack-Lovings -- a family of five -- would be overcrowded in a four-bedroom home.

But before we get all high and mighty, we should all check our own city zoning codes. Many towns have rules like Black Jack's. They just aren't enforced. Hartford, Conn., land-use attorney Dwight Merriam told People that he estimates "five to ten percent of households in this country are in violation of the local definition of 'family.'"

Maybe it's time to start redefining the term.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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