Debates over the definition of
"family" continue to erupt in various American communities.
The stakes are high.
Whether a group of people meets the definition or not can hit
their pocketbook or even prevent them from living together in
the neighborhood of their choice.
Illinois, where council members are debating whether to use $6
million in tax dollars to subsidize the building of a swimming
pool at the Fox Valley Family YMCA. At the heart of the
debate is the propriety of using public funds to build a pool
which will cost alternative families more to use than
married couples and single parents are eligible for family
discounts at the Fox Valley Family YMCA.
In contrast, the Heritage YMCA,
which operates in three other local communities, dropped a
similarly narrow membership policy 10 years ago, and now gives
family discounts to two adults who live in the same house.
That can save a household a few hundred dollars.
At the Fox Valley Family YMCA,
family discounts are awarded to: a legally married man and woman
with children in the home; a single parent with children in the
home; a legally married man and woman without children.
At the Heritage YMCA, family
discounts are awarded to: two adults living in the same home
with children ; two adults living in the same home with no
children; single parents with children in the home receive
The question of how to define
"family" has emerged in a different context in Frederick
Virginia. On November 10, the Board of Supervisors will
vote on a proposal to restrict the number of people who can live
in a residence located in an area zoned for "single family" use.
The Planning Commission has
recommended that "single family" should be defined as two or
more persons related by blood or marriage occupying a dwelling,
living together, and maintaining a household, which may include
not more than one unrelated person. But there is another
proviso which stipulates that not more than three unrelated
persons occupying a dwelling, living together, and maintaining a
household shall be deemed to constitute a single family."
The expansiveness or
restrictiveness of a family definition can have devastating
consequences on a household, as Leyla Chavez found out the hard
About two years ago a city
inspector for Manassas, Virginia knocked on her door. He handed Chavez a form,
told her to fill it out, and explained that she could be
prosecuted for lying.
The inspector wanted to know how
many people lived in the house and how they were related to each
that she lived there with her husband,
their two sons, and a nephew. Also, a
man and his girlfriend rented the
"Your nephew, under our law, is considered
unrelated," the inspector said. The
bottom line: two people had to go.
The battle over the definition of
family has been going on for years, as evidenced by the friction
caused when officials in White Plains, New York, challenged
the development of a small group home for seniors.
housing organization was denied a permit to
build a two-family house in a depressed
neighborhood for use as a communal home
for 12 elderly people. City officials opposed the permit
because the occupancy violated a
"single family" zoning ordinance.
called for two groups of adults to live
in two apartments inside the building,
each group sharing household expenses and a common
living and dining area.
judge sided with the nonprofit builder,
ruling the city's limited notion of
"family" was unconstitutional.
of congregate housing described bears
the generic character of a family unit
and should be recognized as a family
equivalent," the justice said.
proposed group in no way detracts from
the family values that residential
zoning seeks to protect," he added. "To
the contrary, it may actually support
and further those values more
effectively than certain traditional
opinion, the judge hit the nail on the
head. To avoid
arbitrariness and discrimination, any
definition of "family" should look
primarily at how a group functions, not
merely whether the individuals are
related by blood or marriage.
To read other editions of
Column One, click here.
Unmarried America 2007
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
firstname.lastname@example.org. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and