LGBTQ North Carolinians in unmarried, dating relationships must have the same access to domestic violence protections as people in heterosexual relationships, according to a recent North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling.
The state was the last in the country to bar same-sex couples from some of the stronger legal protections from domestic violence, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The court ruled in M.E. v T.J. that the North Carolina law at issue, Chapter 50B of the North Carolina General Statutes, violated the state Constitution and the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. The law defines a “personal relationship” as “persons of the opposite sex” who have lived together or are in a dating relationship, which specifically excludes same-sex couples.
Chapter 50B served "no 'important,' 'substantial,' or even legitimate government interest" in denying equal domestic violence protections to people in same-sex relationships, the opinion states.
"Instead, by denying Plaintiff and similarly situated people the protections it provides victims of domestic violence in 'opposite-sex' dating relationships, runs directly counter to the promotion of the public good, welfare, morals, safety, and any other legitimate public interests of the State,” Chief Judge Linda McGee wrote for the majority.
The case began in 2018, after a North Carolina woman referred to as M.E. in court documents filed for a domestic violence protective order after ending a relationship with a woman she was dating. M.E.'s former partner "did not accept [her] decision," according to her court testimony, and "responded in a manner" that ultimately led her to file for the protective order under Chapter 50B. M.E. said her former partner had access to a parent's gun collection, according to court documents, and would have to surrender all firearms under a protective order.
A trial judge denied her request, stating that Chapter 50B only grants protections to couples in "opposite-sex" relationships. The judge said she could seek a civil no-contact order under Chapter 50C, but it doesn't require defendants to surrender firearms and doesn't prevent them from purchasing new ones.
"People in same-sex dating relationships were relegated to lower protections just because of their LGBTQ status," said Irena Como, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, which represented M.E., alongside attorney Amily McCool of the Scharff Law Firm. "North Carolina was the last state in the country to discriminate against same-sex dating couples trying to obtain domestic violence protections just because of their LGBTQ status, so we are so thrilled that we now have this very comprehensive decision outlining why this discrimination is unconstitutional.”
The plaintiff, M.E., said she is glad the court is expanding protections from domestic violence for all couples, “but this type of discrimination shouldn't have happened in the first place.”
“I’m hopeful that moving forward, this ruling will help those who might find themselves in an already tough situation,” she said in a statement.
Impact of Supreme Court's Bostock ruling
The North Carolina Court of Appeals cited last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, which granted LGBTQ people protection from employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The appeals court referred to Justice Neil Gorsuch's analysis, which established that discrimination based on LGBTQ status is also discrimination based on "sex" or "gender." Como said this is "very significant," because the ruling is now North Carolina's most comprehensive one regarding discrimination on the basis of gender, and that now includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
"One of the arguments that we made in our brief was that this was pure discrimination on the basis of sex, because had our client M.E. been a man dating a woman, M.E. would not have been subject to this discriminatory statute," Como said. "So it ultimately came down to that definition of sex."
Future public accommodations protections
When North Carolina repealed HB 2, widely known as the "bathroom bill" that prevented transgender people from using the bathroom of their gender identity, it passed HB 142, a bill that prevented municipalities from passing nondiscrimination ordinances. HB 142 expired Dec. 1, and advocacy groups have been gearing up to push for public accommodations laws and other ordinances that specifically protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. The court of appeals decision could help those efforts.
"This opinion certainly would strengthen legislative campaigns to say that we should memorialize nondiscrimination in a statewide nondiscrimination law," Ames Simmons, policy director at Equality North Carolina, told NBC News. "That kind of legislation has been introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly, every session, since I've been here since 2017, and we expect to see legislators introduce it again in the upcoming session."
This case held Chapter 50B unconstitutional as applied to M.E., but Como said it lays important groundwork for nondiscrimination suits in the state.
"It paves the way for a legal framework for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity under state law," she said.