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Morals Law May Split Up Family of Newcomers

1805 North Carolina statute means unwed couple must marry, send away kids or move.

March 28, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. — Melissa Sheridan moved here from a chilly town in upstate New York, looking forward to the easy lifestyle of Pleasure Island -- a land of flip-flops, frozen custard and "Smile! You're drunk!" beer steins. After more than a year of planning, she moved with her three children into a ground-floor apartment not far from the Freaky Tiki night club.

A month later, Sheridan has found herself at the center of a dispute over public morality, accused of "lewd and lascivious association."

Her offense is that she cohabitates with her boyfriend, a Wal-Mart stocker who is the father of her 2-year-old daughter.

North Carolina is one of seven states that prohibits men and women from living together unless they are married. Prosecutors rarely act on the 1805 law, written during an era when state legislators also laid out penalties for "keeping bawdy houses" and "crimes against nature with mankind or beast."

But the ban is still invoked in a number of situations, including when convicted criminals move to the state and seek to transfer their probation.

Last year, Sheridan, 24, and her boyfriend, John Finger, 34, decided to leave New York's Catskills region for the South, where both of their families had migrated. Sheridan still had two years of probation to serve from a conviction for welfare fraud, and had cleared the move with her New York probation officers. When she reported to North Carolina's Department of Community Corrections, she was told that because she and Finger were not married, the state would likely refuse to monitor her probation.

If she cannot transfer her probation, she will be in violation of the terms set for her in New York, and New York could issue a warrant for her arrest.

The warning from a North Carolina probation officer was, Sheridan said, the first time she had even heard the word "cohabitation."

"They told me I had three choices: They can send my kids back to New York, or we can get married, or we can get separate houses," Sheridan said. "I wasn't happy at all. It's breaking up my family."

During the 1990s, the number of households with unmarried couples increased nationally by 72%.

Nevertheless, laws against cohabitation are still in place in Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia. Arizona and New Mexico decriminalized cohabitation in 2001, said Tom Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America, an organization that advocates for the rights of single people.

The laws linger because, in conservative states, a vote to repeal them is viewed as an assault on family values, said Democratic state Rep. Mary Ekstrom, who has pushed to repeal the law in North Dakota. North Carolina State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Democrat from Orange, said it would probably take "another 10 years" before state lawmakers would feel comfortable repealing the cohabitation law.

Critics say laws against cohabitation are unconstitutional, particularly since the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws last year, enshrining Americans' right to sexual privacy.

"This is like a shotgun wedding. 'Let's march 'em down the aisle. You will say "I do" or you will break up,' " Coleman said. "The courts are interfering with a fundamental right of choice. That's coercion."

Sheridan and Finger, who have been together for four years, have never seen the importance of marrying each other, they said last week.

From the first day of their relationship they have gotten along well, they said. But both are still married to other people in upstate New York and they never seemed to have enough money to get divorces, they said.

In the three-bedroom apartment they share with relatives, Finger smoked menthol cigarettes as Brittney, their curly-haired daughter, clambered over him, gurgling with delight. Outside the door played Sheridan's sons, ages 4 and 5, from previous relationships.

"We could understand if she was a felon and I was a felon. We're just trying to raise three kids," said Finger, a lanky, sunburned man who worked at a Wal-Mart in New York and plans to transfer to another in North Carolina.

Sheridan had a wedding, once -- at age 18, with the father of her second child. She wore a purple bridesmaid's dress and got her nails done, but felt sick with uncertainty the night before the wedding. Most of her family boycotted the event, she said. She left him after four months, she said, because he abused her.

"To me, marriage is just a piece of paper," said Sheridan, who left high school at 16. "Just because I get a divorce doesn't mean I'm going to jump into marriage again."

Sheridan and Finger had been discussing a move to this North Carolina resort town for more than a year.

Sheridan's probation officer approved the move not realizing that her living situation violated North Carolina state law, said Barbara Valicenti, director of the Greene County Probation Department in upstate New York.

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