A North Carolina woman who says her boss threatened to fire her because she was living with her boyfriend should be able to challenge the 200-year-old law that forced her from her job, attorneys argued in court Monday.
The American Civil Liberties Union has asked a Superior Court judge to allow Debora Hobbs to pursue her case because a threat to enforce the law prompted her to quit her job as a Pender County 911 operator in 2004.
The Attorney General's Office argues that Hobbs should not be allowed to challenge the law because she was not charged with a crime.
"It's enough to show you've been harmed by the law, you don't have to wait to be prosecuted under it to challenge it," says Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina.
The nonprofit civil liberties group sued on behalf of Hobbs last year, arguing that the law violates numerous rights guarantees by the U.S. Constitution – including the right to freedom of religion and expression – as well as rights guaranteed by the North Carolina state Constitution.
North Carolina is one of seven states that still have laws on the books prohibiting cohabitation of unmarried couples. The others are Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and North Dakota.
Hobbs says that shortly after she began working for Pender County in 2004, Sheriff Carson Smith learned she had been living with her boyfriend for about three years and at that time told her to get married, stop living with him or find another job.
Hobbs says with those being the choices, she quit the job.
"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," Hobbs said last year when the ACLU first filed suit on her behalf. "I couldn't believe that I was being given this ultimatum to choose between my boyfriend or my livelihood because the sheriff wanted to enforce a 200-year-old law that clearly violates my civil rights."
Attorneys for the sheriff say he was just doing his job: upholding the law.
The law in question, which has been on the books since 1805, says: "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.
ACLU attorneys argue that the rarely enforced law unjustly governs the actions of two consenting adults in the privacy of their home. The organization believes a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down an anti-sodomy law in Texas may undermine the basis for North Carolina's cohabitation law.
Rudinger said it was unclear how many people have been charged with the misdemeanor crime in North Carolina but that some judges use it sporadically in child custody cases or in parole and probation violation cases.
"Regardless of how people feel about the morality of living together out of wedlock, it's not the role of government to make this a crime," Rudinger said. "We're asking the judge to rule on the constitutionality of this law."