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?"
‘Openly and notoriously’
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 House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on the bill Tuesday.
Sen. Tim Mathern, a Fargo Democrat, has opposed attempts to repeal the anti-cohabitation law. Those attempts at repeal failed in the last two legislative sessions.
"I think the majority of people think they ought to be married if they're living together," Mathern said.
He said the present law was written to prevent fraud, not to prevent people from living together. The North Dakota Supreme Court has specifically rejected that interpretation, most recently in May 2001.
The Senate, with Potter's approval, changed his proposal to relabel cohabitation as fraud if a man and woman pass themselves off as being married when they are not. The bill keeps the punishment at a maximum 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
‘Unconstitutional and silly’
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 new version, if passed by the House, 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."