A state judge has ruled that North Carolina's 201-year-old law barring unmarried couples from living together is unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued last year to overturn the rarely enforced law 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, 41, 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 did not want to get married, so Hobbs quit in 2004.
State Superior Court Judge Benjamin Alford issued the ruling late Wednesday, saying the law violated Hobbs' constitutional right to liberty. He cited a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Texas sodomy law.
That ruling showed that "the government has no business regulating relationships between two consenting adults in the privacy of their own home," Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement.
She added that "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 suit named Smith, the state and Attorney General Roy Cooper as defendants. Cooper had argued that Hobbs couldn't challenge the law because she wasn't charged with a crime.
A Cooper spokeswoman said Thursday that lawyers had not decided whether to appeal.
Hobbs said Thursday she was "very happy for myself and for everyone else this law has affected." She added that she hasn't thought about applying for another job with the sheriff's office.
Rudinger said that since 1997, the law has spawned about 36 criminal cases in North Carolina.
The law also has been used to deny compensation to crime victims, child custody, health benefits, probation and parole, Rudinger said.
The law states, in part: "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."
About 144,000 unmarried couples live together in North Carolina, according to the 2000 census. The ACLU says along with North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and North Dakota have laws that prohibit cohabitation.