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Lawmakers Attempt To Nix Archaic Laws

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Florida made unmarried cohabitation illegal in the 1800s.

The month of March at the Florida Capitol is usually a time for legislators to add to state statutes. But, one lawmaker wants to use the 2014 legislative session as an opportunity for spring cleaning. A bill repealing a ban on cohabitation may open a dialogue about the need to clean up the state’s books.

Scott Chandler and Matilda Parker have been dating since their senior year in high school. They’ve been living together for a couple of years now and the couple said the reason for their living arrangement is a simple monetary calculation.

“We found an apartment that we could afford together, make it work, make it easier for her to do class without having to worry about paying for tuition, and room and board, and food and everything like that,” Chandler said while drying dishes.

“It just made financial sense to move in together,” Parker said.

But according to Florida statutes from the 1800s, Chandler and Parker are breaking a law against unmarried cohabitation. It’s punishable by a $500 fine or 60 days in jail. However, they’ve got lots of company – 2010 Census data shows there are around 600,000 unmarried couples living under the same roof in Florida. That’s why Weston Democratic Representative Richard Stark thinks it’s time for repeal. The first term House member argued the archaic statute can easily be abused and he says it isn’t the only one.

“There is a law in Florida, it uses the term ‘alien’ in it, but basically the outcome of the law is that people from Asia cannot own property in the state of Florida,” Stark said in a phone interview.

That example is actually in the state constitution.  Planted within a provision that lays out Floridians’ “unalienable rights”, the section states that aliens are exempt from the right to own property. When the provision was crafted, alien was a code word for Asian-Americans, who at the time were ineligible for U.S. citizenship.

Stark’s attempt to spotlight legislative relics isn’t the first time a lawmaker has pushed for repeal of an antiquated statute. Melbourne Republican Representative Ritch Workman tried his hand at repealing a swath of statutes, including the cohabitation law, in 2011 but failed after social conservatives in his own party objected. Before that, a voter-led push to repeal the property ban collapsed in 2001 after conservative groups lambasted the effort as an opening for illegal immigrants to secure property rights. In a phone interview Tuesday, Florida State University Political Scientist Lance Dehaven-Smith pointed out that difficulty repealing old statutes isn’t uncommon.

“It’s a fight about something that people don’t even understand well and it’s based on confusion and prejudices. But, that’s pretty common in politics. It’s unfortunate. I think it’s a credit to the American people that they have to be misled. The sad thing is that it’s so easy,” Devahen-Smith explained.

Just because the laws are on the books, doesn’t mean they’ll be used though. Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Florida chapter, said if someone were to be prosecuted under a law like Florida’s cohabitation ban, the suit would be challenged and ultimately thrown out.

“It seems unlikely that the law would stand. I mean, for the government to be involving itself in people’s personal relationships in this way, through the criminal code, would likely found to be an invasion of privacy and wouldn’t stand a challenge,” Johnson asserted.

Numerous calls to the Florida Family Policy Council, a group that opposed repealing cohabitation laws in 2011, we’re not returned. But, legislative opponents say it’s a morality issue. When some lawmakers first heard of Workman’s repeal, they argued it would discourage people from marrying. But Johnson avowed that if that were true, Florida wouldn’t have such a high divorce rate.  Scott Chandler and Matilda Parker agreed.

“I think the fact that almost nobody knows this law was on the books in the first place means that it has no effect whatsoever on my plans for getting married and knowing that it is on the books now – cohabitating before getting married doesn’t seem like a bad idea and it doesn’t discourage me from getting married,” Chandler insisted.

Representative Stark isn’t confident his colleagues will pass his repeal bill, but says passing the measure isn’t necessarily his goal. He wants lawmakers to take a second or third look, at unenforceable statutes. Meanwhile, Parker and Chandler say they don’t have any immediate plans for marriage.