NC court extends protections to victims of abusive same-sex relationships
Posted December 31, 2020 12:46 p.m. EST
Updated December 31, 2020 6:59 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — The state Court of Appeals struck down a state law Thursday that limits the type of protective orders someone in a same-sex relationship could obtain against an abusive partner.
"We know intimate partner violence doesn’t discriminate, and neither should state laws protecting people from that violence," said Irena Como, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, who represented the Wake County woman who challenged the law.
North Carolina law limits so-called 50B protective orders – they're named for the chapter in state statutes on domestic violence – to "persons of opposite sex who live together or have lived together" or "persons of the opposite sex who are in a dating relationship or have been in a dating relationship," in addition to people who have a child together or are members of a household.
When a judge grants a 50B order, the accused abuser can be evicted from a home, be forced to surrender all firearms and temporarily lose the right to obtain another firearm, among other provisions. Law enforcement officers also can arrest someone for violating the order.
"M.E.," a Wake County woman who ended a relationship with another woman in May 2018, was denied a 50B order specifically because it was a same-sex relationship. Even though "T.J." "had committed physical and otherwise threatening actions" against M.E. and had access to her father's gun collection, M.E. was forced to obtain a 50C no-contact order, which is a civil action and doesn't carry the threat of arrest for violation or prevent access to firearms.
"The trial judge said, but for her same-sex dating relationship status, she would have qualified" for a 50B protective order, Como said.
M.E. appealed the ruling, and a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the state law violated her equal protection and due process rights.
"Plaintiff’s right of personal security, like everyone’s, is fundamental, yet the state has denied her protective services it affords others based entirely on her LGBTQ+ status," Chief Judge Linda McGee wrote for the court. "The state cannot deny someone in the LGBTQ+ community the benefit of a constitutionally protected right based solely on that person’s LGBTQ+ status."
McGee and Judge Wanda Bryant sent M.E.'s case back to Wake County court and ordered that she and others in abusive same-sex relationships be granted 50B protective orders.
"The 'same-sex' or 'opposite-sex' nature of their 'dating relationships' shall not be a factor in the decision to grant or deny a petitioner’s DVPO claim," the ruling states.
North Carolina was the last state in the nation that barred domestic violence protective orders for same-sex couples.
"I'm glad the court is expanding protections from domestic violence to all couples, but this type of discrimination shouldn't have happened in the first place,” M.E. said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that, moving forward, this ruling will help those who might find themselves in an already tough situation.”
In a brief dissent, Judge John Tyson focused on procedural issues – M.E. dropped her request for a 50B protective order when she was granted a 50C no-contact order – rather than the merits of M.E.'s argument.
Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, who filed a brief supporting M.E.'s claim and didn't try to defend the state law, both lauded the appellate court ruling.
"This decision is a win for equality and inclusion and for our fight against domestic violence in North Carolina," Cooper said in a statement. "State laws should protect everyone equally, including our LGBTQ community, and this ruling makes that clear."
"A big win for equality in NC!," Stein tweeted. "All people are equal no matter if you are straight or gay."