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N.D. weighs repeal of cohabitation ban

BISMARCK, N.D. --Don Polries and Helen Vetter don't look like outlaws. She's 82 and nearly blind, and he's an 87-year-old World War II veteran whose only brush with the law was a traffic ticket or two, decades ago.

But the retired farmers -- and thousands like them -- are considered criminals in North Dakota because they're not married and live together.

It makes Polries chuckle and Vetter steam.

"I will not have the state ruling us old people," Vetter said. "All we're trying to do is help each other out ... Boy, I'd like to see the state come and try and split us up."

Without each other, the Bismarck couple say, they'd be in a nursing home. They have lived together for about a year, after dating and living in separate apartments for more than a decade.

"I am legally blind," Vetter said. "I can't read and I can't drive -- Don does that for me. ... And when Don had his hip replaced, I helped him out. What's wrong with that?"

North Dakota is one of seven states that bar a man and woman from living together "openly and notoriously" as if they were married. Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia have similar laws.

The North Dakota law has been on the books since statehood, and lists cohabitation as a sex crime, along with rape, incest and adultery.

"It's misguided and a stain on North Dakota's Century Code," said freshman state Sen. Tracy Potter, a Bismarck Democrat who has sponsored legislation to repeal the anti-cohabitation law.

The attempts at repeal failed in the last two legislative sessions.

This year the Senate approved a bill that would lift the cohabitation ban unless an unmarried man and woman pass themselves off as being married to commit fraud. The bill keeps the punishment at a maximum 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Potter himself approved of the change.

Questioning from House Judiciary Committee members at a hearing Tuesday was generally sympathetic to the revised proposal, and three lawmakers spoke in its favor. The committee took no immediate action on the measure.

"I think that things like this make us more of a joke, and we have a hard time with that anyway," said state Rep. Kathy Hawken, a Republican from Fargo. "It is just one more thing that makes us look provincial, and I don't think we really are."

Tom Freier, a spokesman for the North Dakota Family Alliance, which opposes Potter's bill, said he believed the existing law had important symbolic value.

"I think when we stand up for our principles and our standards, I think that's something to be admired, as opposed to being ridiculed," Freier said.

Speaking earlier, Jennifer Ring, executive director of the ACLU of the Dakotas, said the law has never been enforced, and she called it "unconstitutional and silly." The proposed new version also could be challenged as unconstitutional, and is not needed, she said.

"Defrauding someone through a lie is already a crime," she said.

Census figures from 2000 show 23,000 people in North Dakota living in de facto relationships, Potter said. Census figures from that same year show 5.2 million people nationwide lived in an "unmarried partner household."

Rep. Louise "Weezie" Potter, a Grand Forks Democrat who is not related to Tracy Potter, said her elderly mother-in-law and longtime partner wanted to move from Florida to a senior home in Grand Forks a few years ago. They were not allowed to move in because they weren't married, Potter said.

Potter's mother-in-law, who now suffers from Alzheimer's disease, now lives alone in a seniors home in East Grand Forks, Minn. Potter's husband, Tom, a Presbyterian minister, said he and his family never objected to his 78-year-old mother living with her partner for many years.

"One of the reasons she and her companion didn't get married is because she was receiving veterans' benefits after she was widowed," Tom Potter said. "She would have lost them had she remarried."

Polries and Vetter met at a dance a dozen years ago. Both had divorced after more than 40 years of marriage. She has two children; Polries has seven, all of whom are married.

The couple said none of their children object to their living arrangement. "We're never going to get married -- for what?" Vetter said. "You get married one year, and die the next."

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