As did the rest of the nation, same-sex couples in North Carolina won the freedom to marry in 2014. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, the state was left with an obscure law unlike any other in the the nation that prevents those in same-sex relationships and not sharing a residence from accessing protective orders for domestic violence.
The ACLU of North Carolina and attorney Amily McCool are challenging that unequal policy in court on behalf of a survivor of domestic violence who was denied a protective order because the person who made violent threats against her was a woman.
More than 157,000 North Carolinians suffered 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.
Survivors of domestic violence in North Carolina can ask a court for a Domestic Violence Protective Order that would grant them a range of legal protections against their abuser. If the court grants a 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 a different-sex partner with whom they didn’t live, but not a same-sex partner. Such unequal treatment for same-sex and different-sex couples is clearly unconstitutional.
The woman the ACLU and McCool represent in this case was in a dating relationship with another woman, but they did not live together. When the client ended the relationship, her ex became aggressive and threatened physical violence. The client, referred to only as M.E. in filed documents, locked her ex out of the house and called the police. Her ex tried to force her way into the house, and police eventually removed her. M.E.’s ex had access to firearms and continued to go to M.E.’s home and homes of her friends in an attempt to contact M.E.
M.E. asked the district court in Wake County, where she lived, to grant a Domestic Violence Protective Order that would prevent her ex from contacting her or having access to firearms. 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 prohibiting abusers from accessing firearms. If she or her ex were a man, additional protection would have been granted.
While the case continues, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, along with Equality North Carolina and the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence have submitted briefs in the case, arguing that the current state law is discriminatory and must be changed to provide gays and lesbians constitutionally equal protection.