|Mini "culture wars" are erupting
in cities throughout the nation as local officials struggle to
define the term "family." Some residents are finding the process very divisive and
commissions, zoning boards, and city councils in Utah, Missouri,
and Tennessee, for example, are currently trying to decide who
may, and who may not, live in a residential area designated for
"single family" occupancy. Depending on who wins in these
definitional battles, some property owners may have to sell and
some renters may have to move.
Those most at risk in these
political battles are multiple person households where some
occupants are not related to each other by blood, marriage, or
In Provo, Utah, current law
allows a homeowner or renter to live with an unlimited number of
relatives, or up to two unrelated people. A new
proposal would declare that only people related by blood,
marriage, or adoption may live together in a single family zone.
The Provo City Council is
expected to vote on the proposal before May 1.
Meanwhile, a controversy over the
definition of "family" is winding through a political process in
Black Jack, Missouri. Last week,
the City Council there directed
the planning and zoning
commission to review an existing ordinance forbidding more than three
unrelated people from living together.
Black Jack's definition of "family" has been criticized by human
rights groups because it has been
used against unmarried parents with more than one child.
In Knoxville, Tennessee, about 50 residents recently attended a
forum sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Commission to draft
a new definition of "family" in that community.
Most of the homeowners asked the Commission to adopt a "family"
definition upheld by a United States Supreme Court decision in
Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas in 1974. The
Supreme Court concluded that rights of individuals under the
federal Constitution are not violated when a city prohibits more
than two unrelated people from occupying a home in a
single-family residential zone.
precedent may preclude a federal lawsuit, groups of three or
more people who are pushed out or prohibited from living
together in "single family" zones have other legal arguments
they can advance. They can claim, perhaps successfully,
that an unduly restrictive definition of "family" violates their
rights to privacy or liberty or equal protection of the law, as
guaranteed by their state Constitution.
California Supreme Court, for example, invalidated a Santa
Barbara ordinance prohibiting more than five unrelated adults
from living together but allowing an unlimited number of
relatives to share a house. The court ruled that the right
of privacy protected the freedom of a group of individuals to
live together so long as they were functioning as a family, even
if they were not related by blood, marriage or adoption.
years, the highest courts in New Jersey, New York, and Michigan
have also ruled in favor of nontraditional households and have
invalidated restrictive zoning laws which focused solely on the
fact that a group of individuals were unrelated in a traditional
sense. These courts faulted laws which ignored the fact
that a group of nonrelatives may be the "functional equivalent"
of a more traditional family unit.
In the 1984 case of Charter Township of Delta v. Dinolfo,
the Michigan Supreme Court specifically rejected the Belle
Terre decision. In declaring the ordinance
unconstitutional under the Michigan Constitution, the court
"Unrelated persons are artificially limited to as few as two,
while related families may expand without limit. Under the
instant ordinance, twenty male cousins could live together,
motorcycles, noise, and all, while three unrelated clerics could
not . . . . The ordinance indiscriminately regulates where no
regulation is needed and fails to regulate where regulation is
Supreme Court decisions do not leave cities without tools to
address problems of noise, pollution, littering, overcrowding,
safety, and traffic. Laws regulating such issues can be
enforced vigorously against offending households regardless of
whether the occupants are related to each in a traditional
"liberal" court decisions may not prove helpful before more
conservative courts in states such as Utah, Missouri, or
Tennessee. If so-called nontraditional families in
these places want to win, their best bet is to win in the court
of public opinion.
still believe that a person's home is his or her castle.
And they are leary of government regulation of private
government may need to draw a line in terms of who may live in a
residential area zoned for "single family" use. But that
line should be flexible, so that small groups of individuals who
are functioning as a single family unit on a long-term basis are
not put into the same category as an large group of students who
are living together on a short term basis.
household considers itself to be a single family, and if it
functions like a single family, then it should not matter to
local politicians whether the group is related by blood or
marriage. Three elderly friends who share a home, an
unmarried couple with children, or a same-sex couple with a
foster child, should not be viewed as threats to family living.
The best way
for a city council to avoid triggering "culture wars" in their
community -- pitting conservatives against progressives -- is to
place the focus of a new definition of "family" on function, not
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