GREENSBORO, N.C. — Millions of couples across the country forego the once-customary steps of courtship and move in together before marriage. Yet, for lovers in five states -- including North Carolina -- breaking tradition is breaking the law.
"It's the 'Living in Sin' statute, which is what most people know it as," explained criminal attorney Stephanie Goldsborough, Esq. with Dummit Fradin law firm.
That is how Goldsborough and family law trial attorney Jessica Culver, Esq. refer to NC 14-184 -- Fornication and Adultery -- which dates back to 1805. In part, the statute establishes a class two misdemeanor for an unmarried man and woman to "lewdly and lasciviously associate, bed and cohabit together."
A conviction is punishable by up to 60 days in jail. It does not apply to platonic friends who, for example, are sharing a dorm room at college.
"The policy behind this law comes from religious morality -- protection of the institution of marriage -- and people behaving as man and wife, when in fact they're not," Culver explained.
North Carolina is one of five states (Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan and Mississippi) with cohabitation laws still on the books. Florida repealed its version of it in 2016.
Back in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court put the merit of all cohabitation laws in question in the case of Lawrence v. Texas.
"As a result (of Lawrence v. Texas), the U.S. Supreme Court said individuals...engaging in private sexual conduct...[their conduct] is constitutionally privileged, and you have a right to privacy," Goldsborough explained.
But, do you have a right to no judgment for your living situation?
In 2005, then-Pender County sheriff Carson Smith told employee Debora Hobbs to marry her live-in boyfriend, move out or find another job. Hobbs quit, sued and won.
A Pender County Superior Court judge ruled North Carolina's cohabitation law unconstitutional. But, it is still enforceable.
"There's no precedent in our law that says yes, we have to follow what another Superior Court judge does in another county, but potentially that would be something that I would use as a defense attorney in saying look, this is unconstitutional," Goldsborough said.
Even then, cohabitation cases are rare. Neither Goldsborough nor Culver has prosecuted one.
"You would have prosecutors having to prosecute these cases, and in fact they could potentially be prosecuted for the same crime," Goldsborough acknowledged.
Culver is unafraid and unashamed to admit she is one of them.
"My husband and I did live together prior to marriage. We were very much in love, and we knew marriage was coming imminently. I think you can learn more from someone when you actually live with them, and that might be helpful to some people to prevent divorce down the road," Culver said.
Goldsborough and her husband took a different approach.
"I think we would both say we're kind of rule followers, and because we come from conservative Christian backgrounds, we decided not to live together. And, that's something that I see makes a lot of sense. It was a good choice for us," Goldsborough reflected.
Pose the question on Facebook -- move in before -- or wait until marriage? The responses are split, with reasons ranging from money to morals.
The 2010 U.S. Census revealed 7,744,711 unmarried couples admitted to living together, a 41% increase from 10 years prior.
Despite the cultural shift, North Carolina lawmakers tabled legislation to overturn the cohabitation law in 2007. It has not come up since, but beware of its existence.
"People might not be aware that this law is in effect. But knowing about a law or not knowing about a law isn't a defense," Culver noted.
So, whether you call it 'living in sin' or 'living in love,' don't live in limbo of the law.
Other 'strange' NC laws verified:
It's Illegal to Play Bingo Longer Than Five Hours (And To Drink During A Game)