Same-sex couples in North Carolina won the freedom to marry in 2014, but our state law continues to deny LGBTQ people equal protection under the law in many other areas of life, from the workplace to public accommodations and beyond.
In fact, North Carolina is currently the only state in the nation whose laws that provide protections to survivors of domestic violence do not apply equally to those in same-sex relationships. As part of our work to advance LGBTQ equality, the ACLU of North Carolina and attorney Amily McCool of the Scharff Law Firm are challenging that unequal policy in court on behalf of a survivor of domestic violence who was denied a protective order simply because the person who made violent threats against her also happened to be a woman.
More than 157,000 North Carolinians were survivors of domestic violence in 2014, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice. And, unlike state law, domestic violence does not discriminate on the basis of sex or sexual orientation, as people in same-sex relationships are just as, if not more, likely to be its survivors.
In North Carolina, survivors of domestic violence can ask a court for a domestic violence protective order, sometimes called a “50B” to refer to its chapter in state law, that would grant them a range of legal protections against their abuser. If the court grants a 50B protective order and the abuser violates it, they are subject to criminal penalties.
However, a domestic violence protective order is only available to people who are defined as having a “personal relationship” under state law. That language currently specifies that people who are in or have been in a dating relationship and do not live together can only receive such protections if they are “persons of the opposite sex.” That means that an unmarried person can receive protection from an opposite-sex partner with whom they didn’t live, but not a same-sex partner. Such unequal treatment for same-sex and opposite-sex couples is unconstitutional discrimination, plain and simple.
The woman we represent in this case, M.E., whose identity we are protecting because of the sensitive issues in the case, was in a dating relationship with another woman but they did not live together. When M.E. ended the relationship, her ex became physically aggressive and threatened physical violence against M.E., who locked her out of the house and called the police. Her ex tried to force her way into the house, and police eventually removed her. Later on, she continued to go to M.E.’s home and homes of her friends in an attempt to contact her. M.E. also worried about the firearms that her ex had access to.
Fearing for her safety, M.E. asked the Wake County District Court to grant a domestic violence protective order that would prevent her ex from contacting her or having access to firearms — something only a 50B order could prohibit. Courts recognized that M.E. was “terrified” and that her ex had “caused [her] to suffer substantial emotional distress by placing her in fear of bodily injury and continued torment[.]” But she was not granted a protective order for one reason: her ex was a woman. A judge found that the facts in the case “would have supported the entry of a Domestic Violence Protective Order … had the parties been of opposite genders.”
Instead, M.E. was granted a temporary “no contact” order, a lesser safeguard that fails to provide certain protections, like an order for abusers to not have access to firearms, that are only available under the 50B order that M.E. was denied. If she or her ex were a man, that additional protection would have been granted.
Our domestic violence laws should apply equally to everyone in the state, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. We are representing M.E. to ensure that she — and every other LGBTQ North Carolinian — receives equal protections under our state domestic violence laws.
And we are not alone. A range of leading groups and individuals -- from Attorney General Josh Stein, to Equality North Carolina, to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence -- have submitted briefs in the case, arguing that our current state law is discriminatory and needs to change.
Intimate partner violence does not discriminate, and neither should state laws protecting people from that violence.