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Unmarried woman challenges law

A Pender County dispatcher forced to quit her job last year after the sheriff discovered she had a live-in boyfriend is suing to overturn a N.C. law that makes living together a crime.

Sheriff Carson Smith told Debora Lynn Hobbs, 40, that she would have to marry, move or leave her job, said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina.

"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 in a statement. "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."

The sheriff did not respond to a message left Tuesday. Last year, Smith said he doesn't dispatch deputies to enforce the law, but that he tries to avoid hiring people who live out of wedlock, according to The Associated Press.

Living together as an unmarried couple is a misdemeanor punishable by as many as 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

In North Carolina, one of about half a dozen states with such a law, 33 people have been charged with the crime and 25 people have been convicted since 1997, according to the ACLU. There are 118,781 unmarried people of opposite sexes living in the same households in the state, according to the latest Census figures.

Hobbs has lived with her boyfriend since 2001. Since that time, she has worked as a deputy clerk for the Pender County Clerk of Court's Office and twice for the Sheriff's Office, most recently as a dispatcher, her lawsuit says.

Two weeks after starting that job in February 2004, the sheriff gave her the ultimatum, according to the lawsuit. By May, Hobbs was "forced involuntarily to terminate her employment," it reads. She filed her lawsuit Monday in Pender County Superior Court against Smith, Pender County District Attorney Ben David and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.

A fight for rights

Hobbs is not trying to get her job back or recover any monetary damages, Rudinger said.

The ACLU leader said unmarried couples have a constitutional right to live together.

She cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2003 that struck down Texas' sodomy law. That ruling says a law making such sex acts between same-sex couples a crime violated their rights to privacy and equal protection.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government has no business regulating what consenting adults do in their homes," Rudinger said.

Staff writer Andrea Weigl can be reached at 829-4848 or [email protected].
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