Get your laws off my family

Although the majority of U.S. households are headed by unmarried individuals, cohabitation remains illegal in seven states.

Published August 25, 2006 2:21PM (EDT)

On the social engineering beat, the Christian Science Monitor provides a good roundup of the various anticohabitation laws still on the books in the U.S. The majority of households in the U.S. are headed by unmarried or single adults, according to a census report released last week, and more than 5 million couples live together out of wedlock. Yet, in seven states, some 1.6 million of those Americans are breaking the law.

In March we reported on a family in Black Jack, Mo., where city rules denied them a housing permit -- though the couple had children together, Mom and Dad were not married and thus not a real family. The good news on the Black Jack case is that the City Council voted last Tuesday to overturn the retrograde ordinance, which prohibited more than three people not related by "blood, marriage or adoption" from living together. The mayor claimed that the rule was to "prevent crowding -- not for moral reasons," the Monitor reports.

But still, these archaic laws persist in states that insist upon defining who makes up a family. Dan Pollitt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the Monitor that although the laws "are hardly ever enforced  they are  often used as a weapon to degrade someone else." In North Carolina, where a state law bans cohabitation, a district judge ruled in July that real harm was inflicted on Deborah Hobbs, a sheriff's department dispatcher, after she was forced to leave her job in 2004 for not ending her out-of-wedlock living arrangement with her boyfriend. The ACLU sued the sheriff's department on her behalf.

Unfortunately, the major reason these laws remain, the Monitor explains, is because "politicians don't want to get involved in a culture battle." But by not acting, by allowing the laws to persist, legislators are deeming certain families unlawful -- be they extended, gay or cohabitating heterosexuals - because they fall outside Judeo-Christian norms. Last we checked, church was supposed to be separate from state.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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