Laws aren’t made to be popular; they are made to enforce behavior and allow humans to live together in functional societies. However, across the world, there are some laws that just don’t make sense. Some aren’t enforceable, some are anachronistic, and some defy facts and/or logic. Below are 10 examples of regulations that will make you ask, “Seriously–how is this a law?”
10. Women in Saudi Arabia are not legally allowed to drive
Saudi Arabia is not known for its tolerant climate toward women’s rights—women in the kingdom, which is governed by Sharia (Islamic law), with a strict Wahabbism interpretation, face numerous restrictions on their day-to-day lives. These religious restrictions, which have the power of law, include a requirement for women to dress conservatively and cover their hair, the need for a male guardian when venturing out in public, and a restriction that requires women to get the permission of a male relative to open a bank account or obtain a passport.
While women in Saudi Arabia have gained some limited rights in recent years, including the right to vote and run for office, they still face numerous limitations on their freedoms, including the world’s only ban on female drivers. While the ban is technically an unwritten religious edict, it is codified as law because Saudi Arabia only recognizes local driver’s licenses, which are not issued to women, and has arrested women who attempt to defy the ban. The kingdom’s ruling family and religious authorities have repeatedly justified the ban, with deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud saying the Saudi community “is not convinced about women driving” and one conservative cleric contending, without offering evidence, that driving posed a threat to women’s ovaries and would result in children born with health problems (again, this argument is refuted by evidence from every other country on earth). The nonsensical ban has certainly impacted the Saudi economy, with limited mobility hurting female workforce participation, and exacerbated income inequality, as women from wealthy families are able to employ drivers to get around, but poor women cannot.
9. In Utah, drinks can’t be seen by patrons until they are served
If James Bond really wants to be certain his martini is “shaken, not stirred,” he better not drop by any restaurants in Utah. Since 2009, Utah law requires restaurants to prepare mixed drinks behind a 7-foot partition (often made of opaque glass) out of the view of restaurant patrons. This so-called “Zion Curtain,” a nod to the state’s large teetotaling Mormon community, was meant to shield children from the glamour and corrupting influence of seeing a drink being mixed. This, despite any evidence that seeing drinks mixed by professionals would be a potential gateway to underage drinking for Utah youths. About the only good thing you can say about the law is that it is actually better than the alcohol restrictions it replaced. Prior to 2009, Utah law required customers to become members of “social clubs” (i.e. restaurants) or bars before you could consume a drop of alcohol on the premises. Basically, getting wine with dinner involved the same procedure as joining a country club, sometimes even requiring sponsorship.
The “Zion Curtain” law has been unpopular in the state, with a survey showing 70% of Utah residents oppose the law. A revised version of the law, effective July 1, 2017, will allow restaurants to forgo the “Zion Curtain,” but only if they create an adults-only buffer zone around the bar. Again, the law is better than what it replaced, but still tied to the–largely unproven–conclusion that the sight of an alcoholic drink being mixed poses an unacceptable threat to Utah’s youth (but somehow watching adults consume the drinks post-mixing doesn’t).
8. In Mississippi, it’s illegal to have a second illegitimate child
There are archaic “love laws” that remain on the books all over the United States that make everything from living together before marriage, gay sex, and adultery criminal acts. These laws are rarely, if ever, enforced, so their continued existence is perplexing.
Mississippi has one particularly strange law of this type, which states:
“If any person, who shall have previously become the natural parent of an illegitimate child within or without this state by coition within or without this state, shall again become the natural parent of an illegitimate child born within this state, he or she shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than thirty (30) days nor more than ninety (90) days or by a fine of not more than Two Hundred Fifty Dollars ($ 250.00), or both.”
This law has a dark history. It was designed largely to target African-Americans and originally classified parenting a second illegitimate child a felony and included a provision that allowed violators to escape punishment if they agreed to sterilization (fortunately, that version never became law). There was one quirky loophole written into the law: all multiple births would be counted as the first illegitimate child, so if you had twins (or triplets, etc.) out of wedlock, you had found the only way to legally have multiple illegitimate children in Mississippi.
While it may seem harmless to keep these outdated and unused laws on the books, the fact remains that as long as a law is there, someone could decide to enforce it (in the case of laws against adultery, a vindictive spouse seems to be the primary complainant seeking the law’s enforcement against their partner or partner’s paramours). Before gay marriage was legalized across the United States, there was some concern that the law against a second out-of-wedlock birth, borne of racist intentions, could find another discriminatory outlet. The law could theoretically be used to target gay parents, whose marriages were not recognized in Mississippi (and whose children were all, therefore, technically born out wedlock). Another reason for Mississippi to ditch this law: it doesn’t seem to be discouraging Mississippians from having kids outside of marriage. Census Bureau research showed that Mississippi’s percentage of out-of-wedlock births was the second-highest among US states, with more than 48% of births occurring outside of marriage.
7. It’s legal to be naked in public in Vermont, but can be illegal to take your clothes off in public
As one man, who strolled through Burlington, Vermont one day in the summer of 2016, wearing only sneakers and a bandana (on his head), apparently knows, it’s not illegal to be naked in public in Vermont, unless you are in a public park. However, while nudity is fine, disrobing in public is generally considered to be a violation of Vermont’s law against lewd and lascivious conduct. A Vermont Supreme Court case (around a flasher) did find that exposing one’s naked body could be a violation of the law and the Court further referenced the need for lewd and lascivious conduct to be obscene or sexual in nature.
Because it’s hard to draw the line between innocently taking off one’s clothes in public and being a flasher, would-be nudists in Vermont are advised to drop trou before they head out in public. When asked about public nudity, Burlington’s police chief described the behavior of a man who was walking through busy intersections in the buff as “inappropriate,” but “not necessarily illegal,” noting that as long as naked folks weren’t stripping down in public, harassing people, or touching themselves, there was not much city police officers could do according to state law.
6. In the US, it is illegal to burn money
Got money to burn? Well if you’re in the US, you can’t, at least not legally (several other countries also outlaw the destruction of currency). Title 18, Section 333 of the United States Code says that:
“Whoever mutilates, cuts, disfigures, perforates, unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, Federal Reserve Bank, or Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such item(s) unfit to be reissued, shall be fined not more than $100 or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.”
Interestingly, it’s fine to destroy coins, as long as it’s not done “fraudulently,” so collectors of souvenir pressed pennies can sleep soundly at night.
Actually, everyone can pretty much sleep soundly at night. Despite the existence of this law, destroying bills is not a crime that’s often prosecuted, even when it’s done publically. MSNBC’s Larry Kudlow burned a bill on the air to protest inflationary policies without facing any legal consequences. And some think that if burning of currency were prosecuted, the law would likely be ruled unconstitutional as a limit on protected speech, though others point out that since the government pays to print money (about 5 cents per bill), its interest in preserving the cash supply isn’t merely symbolic. In the US, this law is mainly used against counterfeiters, so while burning money is technically illegal (even when it’s YOUR money), the odds that you’ll end up doing time for setting fire to a stack of Benjamins remain low.
5. Under US military law, unsuccessful suicide attempts are illegal
You would think someone who was on the verge of taking his own life would have suffered enough, right? But the US military disagrees, making it a crime for soldiers to attempt to kill themselves, one that can result in disciplinary action, including prison time and a bad-conduct discharge. Under Article 134 in the Manual for Court Martial, prosecution is allowed for self injury that causes “prejudice to good order and discipline” or has a “tendency to bring the service into disrepute”, a provision that has been used to prosecute unsuccessful suicide attempts, even when there was evidence of mental health issues on the part of the offending soldier.
Suicide isn’t treated as a crime for soldiers who succeed. As one military lawyer, defending a client who was court-martialed after a failed suicide attempt, explained this cruel paradox, “If he had succeeded… he would have been treated like his service was honorable, his family would have received a condolence letter from the President, and his death would have been considered in the line of duty. Because he failed, he was prosecuted.”
Certainly, the US military does have a compelling interest in dissuading its troops from suicide. Suicide rates amongst US service members are more than two times the average for the general population. However, there isn’t any evidence that criminalizing suicide attempts reduces their frequency. Data from Canada and New Zealand, which decriminalized suicide in 1972 and 1961 respectively, suggest that removing laws punishing suicide attempts did not impact the suicide rates within those nations.
Common sense suggests that adding criminal charges to the plate of an already suicidal individual only compounds the problems facing that person. The World Health Organization suggests that criminalizing suicidal acts adds to the stigma related to suicide, which can undermine suicide prevention efforts. In other words, laws against suicide attempts, like those within the US military, don’t stop suicides, but they may deter depressed people from accessing help that might prevent suicides.
4. In several US states, atheists are barred from public office
Atheists, those who do not believe in a higher power, have long faced discrimination, and in many places across the globe, that discrimination is codified as law. In 13 Muslim countries, people who reject the state religion of Islam or espouse atheism face the death penalty. In the United States, the situation for atheists isn’t nearly so dire, but for a country whose Constitution includes several references to freedom of religion, the US has a surprising number of legal restrictions on atheists.
In seven US states, state constitutions bar atheists from public office. Maryland’s Constitution goes a step further, saying atheists also can’t serve as jurors or witnesses. While these restrictions have been rendered unenforceable by a Supreme Court decision (in a case brought by a Maryland notary who refused to take an oath that required belief in God), that hasn’t stopped some from trying to use them to deny office to atheist elected officials. Given that keeping these bans on the books serves no purpose, some atheist groups have been arguing for their removal. Proponents of removing the atheist bans, like Todd Steifer, chairman of the Openly Secular Coalition, say that if illegal discrimination against any other minority group was enshrined in the state constitution, “You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed. Even if it was still unenforceable, it would still be disgraceful and be removed. So why are we different?”
3. In some US states, you must disclose if your house is haunted when trying to sell it
While the existence of ghosts is up for debate, with polls showing that almost half the people in the US and the UK believe in ghosts, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that supports their existence. In fact, some scientists have argued that the existence of ghosts is refuted by the failure of the Large Hadron Collider to detect any energy that would comprise such spirit beings. However, even though there’s no irrefutable proof that ghosts exist, some US states still require you to disclose whether your property is haunted when you try to sell it.
The extent of required ghost-related disclosures depends on the state where your house is located. In Virginia, you aren’t legally required to disclose any act or occurrence (including hauntings), unless it had, “effect on the physical structure of the real property, its physical environment, or the improvements located hereon.” So if the haunting extends to blood appearing on the walls, for example, you do need to make it known to buyers. In New York State, the Supreme Court found that once a homeowner publically represents their home as haunted, the home is legally considered haunted, a material condition that must be disclosed to potential buyers. But if you’ve kept Casper’s existence to yourself, you’re in the clear to sell without providing info to buyers. In Massachusetts, there is no requirement to disclose that a home, “has been the site of alleged parapsychological or supernatural phenomenon.” However, if the buyer asks if the place is haunted, it is a crime to lie. For an unproven phenomenon, ghosts seem to get a surprising number of mentions in US real estate law.
2. In Switzerland, it is illegal to keep just one of a social animal
In 2008, Switzerland passed legislation protecting the “social rights” of certain animals. Since passage of this law, it is illegal to keep a single member of a social animal species, a designation which includes goldfish, parrots, and guinea pigs, since a solitary social animal will be lonely.
While this law has great intentions behind it, it does create a bit of a quandary for some pet owners seeking to abide by the law. What if you start with two guinea pigs, but one dies? Do you now have to continue buying replacement companion guinea pigs until the end of time? One enterprising Swiss company addresses just this problem, offering a “rent-a-guinea-pig” service. The rental service provides companion guinea pigs for an otherwise solitary guinea pig’s remaining time, which can be returned after the death of the other guinea pig. No word on how the law will deal with guinea pigs who happen to be antisocial jerks, and are the rare members of their species that don’t want to chill with a buddy. However, the law doesn’t have strong enforcement provisions, especially since the Swiss voted down an attempt to appoint lawyers to act on behalf of pets, so folks who keep a solitary goldfish are unlikely to face penalties (other than pangs of conscience) for violating the law.
1. In China, it is illegal for Buddhist monks to reincarnate without state permission
China’s citizens are subject to a sweeping array of laws, including legal restrictions on the number of children they can have and their mobility to relocate within the country. But with regard to Tibetan Buddhist monks, the Chinese government is seeking to extend its control even beyond this life. China’s State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5 requires Tibetan religious leaders (known as living Buddhas or tulkus) who are planning to be reborn to apply to several government entities for approval before doing so. China has called the law, “an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation,” a statement that merely underlines the inherent futility of attempting to regulate what its citizens can do after death.
The real purpose of the law seems to be to allow Chinese authorities to control the selection of the eventual successor to the Dalai Lama, and to quell any movement in support of Tibetan independence by religious figures in the region. The Dalai Lama has previously said that if Tibet remains under Chinese control, he will be reincarnated elsewhere, suggesting there could be dueling Dalai Lamas in the future—one selected by Chinese authorities through their reincarnation recognition procedures, and another illegally-reincarnated Dalai Lama outside of Chinese territory.