ACLU Wins Challenge to North Carolina's Cohabitation Ban

July 20, 2006 12:00 am

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911 Dispatcher Lost Her Job Because She Lived With Her Boyfriend “Out Of Wedlock”

BURGAW, NC – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina today applauded a state court decision declaring the state’s 201-year-old ban on cohabitation to be unconstitutional.

The ACLU had filed the case on behalf of Debora Hobbs, an unmarried woman who lost her job as a 911 dispatcher with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office simply because she chose to live with her unmarried boyfriend.

“I am absolutely thrilled with the court’s decision,” said Hobbs. “I just didn’t think it was any of my employer’s business whether I was married or not, as long as I was good at my job, and I am happy that no one else will ever have to be subjected to this law. I couldn’t believe that I was being given this ultimatum to choose between my boyfriend or my livelihood because the Sheriff was enforcing a 201-year-old law that clearly violates my civil rights.”

In February 2004, shortly after starting her job as a dispatcher for the Pender County Sheriff’s Office, Hobbs was told that she would be required to marry her partner, move out of the house they shared together, or leave her job.

The law, General Statute § 14-184, states: “If any man and woman, not being married to each other, shall lewdly and lasciviously associate, bed and cohabit together, they shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”

In a ruling issued late yesterday, State Superior Court Judge Benjamin Alford found the law to be unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to Hobbs. The court ruled that the cohabitation statute violated Hobbs’ constitutional right to liberty, citing a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case called Lawrence v. Texas which struck down a Texas sodomy law.

“The Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas stands for the proposition that the government has no business regulating relationships between two consenting adults in the privacy of their own home,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “North Carolina’s cohabitation law is not only patently unconstitutional, but the idea that the government would criminalize people’s choice to live together out of wedlock in this day and age defies logic and common sense.”

The court’s final order is being drafted and is expected to be signed by the judge within the next few days. Attorneys for the state and the sheriff have not yet indicated whether they plan to appeal the ruling.

Cooperating attorneys for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation representing Hobbs are Peter J. Isajiw, Harry P. Cohen, Ivan J. Dominguez and David J. Ward with the law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP in New York and Jeffrey S. Miller of Jacksonville, NC.

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