Family, in the Traditional Sense

With the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, it would seem advocates of “traditional marriage” are on the retreat. However, there’s an interesting law (or its equivalent) on the books in cities all across America enshrining traditional notions of what marriage means that has survived court challenge after court challenge.

It has to do with the fact that the federal courts, while willing to weigh in on the definition of marriage, have been less eager to talk about what constitutes a family. Instead, they have consistently deferred to municipalities to decide what best fits their individual communities.

The result is that if you an unmarried couple looking to buy a house in a nice neighborhood, you may be in for a nasty surprise. Many cities (including here in my home state of Missouri) define a family strictly as “ one or more persons related by blood, marriage or adoption, occupying a dwelling unit as an individual housekeeping organization.”

Been together for a decade? Taking care of kids that aren’t related to you? Widowed friends moving in together to make ends meet? If they house you are living in is what’s known as “single-family residential” in zoning parlance, then sorry, but you have to get out. And you could face thousands in fines if you don’t do it quick enough.

You see, your neighbors are interested in preserving the sheen on their white-picket fences and the laws on the books are on their side. All sorts of people who could reasonably argue that they constitute a family have been caught in this exact situation. And usually, when they go to court, they lose.

The courts have said the solution must be political, and in some instances it has. Blackjack, Missouri, changed its definition of a family following a civil lawsuit. Illinois has a state statute that expands the word to encompass groups of individuals “maintaining a common household.” It’s a step I’d like to see a lot more cities take.

Also, it’s worth noting that the same-sex marriage ruling will mean a lot more gay and lesbian couples moving into the neighborhood, now able to use the same law that keep them out as their ticket to come on in.

— Day 24 —