Olivia Shelltrack and Fondray Loving and
their three children were
excited when they moved into their new home in Black Jack City,
Missouri. But their joy turned to shock when local
bureaucrats denied them an occupancy permit because their
household did not fit the city's definition of "family."
Black Jack is a small community with
only 2,400 households. The Census Bureau shows a slight
hint of diversity in Black Jack, with 563 people living alone,
1261 married couple households, 528 households containing
unmarried blood relatives, and 70 "non-family" households.
Apparently city officials want to
rid the town of 'non-family" living arrangements. A local
ordinance forbids three or more individuals from living together
if they are not related by "blood, marriage or adoption."
Although Shelltrack and Fondray
are not married, they have lived together for 13 years.
Fondray is the father of two of the children, but not the
oldest. As a result, the city says their household composition violates
the city ordinance and they should move out.
The couple recently appealed the
denial of an occupancy permit at a hearing before Black Jack's
board of adjustment. The board rejected the appeal and
the case now goes before the municipal court.
This is likely to be a tough
court battle, with few legal precedents siding with the
unmarried family. And unless an organization such as the
American Civil Liberties Union steps in to help, the costs of
litigation could bankrupt this modest-income family of five.
The couple have filed a complaint
with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
However, they are not likely to receive help from that agency
since federal law does not prohibit marital status
discrimination in housing.
Although 23 states do have fair
housing laws against marital status bias, Missouri is not one of
them. So that state's civil rights laws won't be of much
Nor are prior judicial rulings in
Missouri very promising.
In 1985, the city of Ladue sued a
couple for violating a city ordinance prohibiting an unmarried
man and woman from living together if they were not "related by
blood, marriage or adoption." A year later, the Missouri Court
of Appeals upheld the ruling against the couple, who had lived
in the home for four years.
So in order to prevail,
Shelltrack and Loving may have to focus on their federal
constitutional rights, arguing that an arbitrary and irrational
local law is infringing on their liberty and violating their
family's right to privacy. Although appellate courts in
California, New York, Michigan, and New Jersey have accepted
such arguments, the Supreme Court of Missouri may prove to be
If the couple can muster the
resources for this litigation, the case may well end up in
federal court, testing the ramifications of a United States
Supreme Court decision that struck down a sodomy law in Texas a
few years ago. In that case, Lawrence v. Texas, the
court ruled that all adults have a right to privacy
regardless of their marital status.
If this case ever did get that
far, it would also put newly appointed Supreme Court Justice
Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts to the test.
At their confirmations hearings, both men testified that they
considered it to be "settled
precedent" that the Constitution protects the
privacy rights of the unmarried as well as the married.
in Black Jack seem to believe that Shelltrack and Loving have two families, with
Shelltrack and her oldest child forming one, and the rest of the
household forming another. But public opinion polls
suggest that most Americans would feel differently, defining
"family" as a group of people who love and care for each other
rather than limiting the definition to people who "are
related by blood, marriage, or adoption."
The outcome of this case could have national ramifications, considering
that there are more than six million unmarried couples in the
United States and nearly 40 percent of them are raising
Olivia Shelltrack and Fondray
Loving and their children know they are a family. Most
Americans would probably agree. Too bad that local
officials in Black Jack City won't take off their blinders so
they can respect family diversity in their
Unmarried America 2006
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
email@example.com. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and