Gay cou­ples in NC lack do­mes­tic vi­o­lence pro­tec­tions

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY WILL DO­RAN wdo­[email protected]­sob­

Here’s one area where North Carolina stands alone: It’s the only state in the coun­try that won’t let peo­ple in same-sex dat­ing re­la­tion­ships get a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence pro­tec­tive or­der.

Now, N.C. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Stein is tak­ing the rare step of call­ing the law un­con­sti­tu­tional in an ef­fort to get it over­turned in court. In an in­ter­view this week, he said he also plans to talk to state leg­is­la­tors about chang­ing the law when they re­turn to Raleigh later this month.

“It’s just non­sen­si­cal that on an is­sue where we work so hard to keep peo­ple safe so they don’t have to live in fear they’ll be as­saulted or mur­dered, that we would deny that pro­tec­tion to peo­ple just be­cause they’re gay,” Stein said.

In North Carolina, any­one who is a vic­tim of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence can file crim­i­nal charges against their abuser.

But a quicker op­tion is a 50(B) pro­tec­tive or­der, com­monly known as a re­strain­ing or­der. The or­ders, is­sued by a judge, can force al­leged abusers to stay away from vic­tims, lose cus­tody of their chil­dren or give up their guns.

In many cases, gay peo­ple are le­gally barred from get­ting a re­strain­ing or­der in North Carolina – a pro­hi­bi­tion that ex­ists nowhere else in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to Stein and oth­ers who ad­vo­cate for chang­ing the law.

The or­ders are a key part of the le­gal sys­tem’s fight against do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. Judges is­sue them in civil court, where pro­ce­dures can move sig­nif­i­cantly faster, in part be­cause the ac­cused have fewer rights than in a crim­i­nal trial.

Those who vi­o­late a pro­tec­tive or­der can then be con­victed of a crime.

In North Carolina, there are mul­ti­ple types of re­la­tion­ships that can qual­ify peo­ple for a pro­tec­tive or­der – for ex­am­ple, mar­ried or di­vorced cou­ples, or chil­dren and their par­ents. Gay peo­ple are not barred from get­ting pro­tec­tive or­ders in those cir­cum­stances. But when it comes to those who are dat­ing or liv­ing to­gether, or who used to be, the law specif­i­cally ap­plies only to re­la­tion­ships be­tween “per­sons of the op­po­site sex.”

The is­sue came up last May, when a Wake County woman, iden­ti­fied only by her ini­tials in court fil­ings, asked a judge for a pro­tec­tive or­der against her ex-girl­friend.

A judge de­nied her re­quest. When the woman tried again in June, she was again de­nied. She then took her case to the N.C. Court of Ap­peals, ar­gu­ing that she was de­nied equal treat­ment un­der the law.

In a le­gal brief in her case filed Mon­day, Stein ar­gued that the law is un­con­sti­tu­tional and should be over­turned. Demo­cratic Gov. Roy Cooper asked to join Stein’s ar­gu­ment on Wed­nes­day. And in a sep­a­rate brief, gay rights groups, in­clud­ing Equal­ity NC, lent their sup­port.

The ACLU of North Carolina is help­ing with the woman’s ap­peal. ACLU at­tor­ney Chris Brook said this is a law the group has wanted to chal­lenge “for quite some time.”

“Folks who are in abu­sive re­la­tion­ships are in quite pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tions,” Brook said in an in­ter­view. “And to seek pro­tec­tion and then be told you can’t get that pro­tec­tion, be­cause of who you are, re-vic­tim­izes that per­son. That’s trau­matic in and of it­self.”

Stein, a Demo­crat, said that while some high­pro­file is­sues over gay rights have be­come po­lit­i­cal, he doesn’t think this push should be viewed po­lit­i­cally. Un­til re­cently, he said, North Carolina was one of four states that de­nied gay peo­ple these types of pro­tec­tions. But the Repub­li­can-led leg­is­la­tures of Mon­tana and Louisiana changed their laws, he said, and then the Repub­li­can at­tor­ney gen­eral of South Carolina in­ter­vened to get that state’s law changed.

Stein said the blame for the North Carolina law lies with his own party, since it is sev­eral decades old.

“It wasn’t some­thing the Repub­li­can-ma­jor­ity leg­is­la­ture did,” Stein said. “This was back in the Demo­cratic-con­trolled days. And it was done at a time when peo­ple didn’t think that same-sex folks de­served equal pro­tec­tion.”

Stein has sup­port from law en­force­ment, in­clud­ing the North Carolina As­so­ci­a­tion of Chiefs of Po­lice.

“The law needs to evolve,” said Gar­ner Po­lice Chief Bran­don Zuidema, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s pres­i­dent.

Zuidema said po­lice sup­port is “es­sen­tially unan­i­mous” and he views it as sim­ply try­ing to cut down on vi­o­lent crime.

“Par­tic­u­larly with do­mes­tic vi­o­lence sit­u­a­tions, we’re try­ing equally to ad­dress the is­sue at hand but also pre­vent fu­ture is­sues,” he said.

There are other types of re­strain­ing or­ders avail­able un­der North Carolina law that are not nec­es­sar­ily re­lated to in­ti­mate part­ner vi­o­lence. For in­stance, the woman who took her case to the state Court of Ap­peals even­tu­ally got a 50(C) no-con­tact or­der, Brook said.

But that type of or­der does not al­low a judge to re­voke the al­leged abuser’s right to buy or own guns. The woman’s exgirl­friend’s threats of vi­o­lence and ac­cess to guns were the main rea­son for the pro­tec­tive or­der re­quest in the first place, Brook said.

About 150,000 North Carolini­ans deal with do­mes­tic abuse each year, and about one in ev­ery five mur­der vic­tims in the state is killed by a part­ner, Stein said.

“Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is a ma­jor so­cial prob­lem, and it’s a driver – a fun­da­men­tal driver – of vi­o­lent crime in our coun­try,” Stein said.

Brook said do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is be­lieved to be about as preva­lent in same-sex re­la­tion­ships as in op­po­site-sex re­la­tion­ships. Last year, ac­cord­ing to the state courts sys­tem, there were more than 30,000 do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases filed across North Carolina, he said.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to say how many of those cases in­volved same-sex cou­ples.

“We’re not talk­ing a hand­ful,” he said. “We’re talk­ing hun­dreds of North Carolini­ans who are in same-sex re­la­tion­ships and have sought pro­tec­tive or­ders in any given year.”

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