FL County Refuses to Protect Gay Couples from Domestic Violence; ACLU Vows to Fight 'Unconstitutional, Unconscionable' Practice

August 7, 2000 12:00 am

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BRADENTON, FL — It was both “unconstitutional and unconscionable” for a Florida judge to refuse to issue a restraining order to protect a gay man from domestic violence, the American Civil Liberties Union said today. The ACLU said it was investigating reports that lesbians and gay men are now considered ineligible for protection from domestic violence in parts of Florida.

A Bradenton county judge denied a gay man a restraining order earlier this year that would keep his allegedly abusive partner away from him, saying the state law mandating such injunctions applies to couples who have resided together or “are presently residing together as a family.”

In the months since the judge ruled that gay and lesbian couples are not legally recognized as families, county clerks have not issued applications for domestic violence injunctions to lesbians and gay men.

“The ruling was clearly unconstitutional,” said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “It would hard to think of a clearer denial of ‘equal protection of the law’ than denying protection from violence because of sexual orientation.”

Since they are not protected by domestic violence injunctions, Manatee County lesbians and gay men in abusive relationships can only apply for repeat violence injunctions. Repeat violence injunctions are more cumbersome to obtain, have more limited effect and are available only to those who have already been abused.

“This is dangerous,” Coles said. “We’ve already had conversations with county officials, and we are looking into the quickest way to resolve this situation and ensure equality and safety for all citizens. Our preference is to resolve this without a lawsuit.”

Nothing in Florida state law on domestic violence injunctions prohibits judges from issuing restraining orders to gay men or lesbians, the ACLU said. Judges in the neighboring counties of Sarasota and Charlotte issue domestic violence injunctions regardless of sexual orientation.

Circuit Judge Marc Gilner initially denied a domestic violence injunction to a 27-year-old Bradenton man because, the judge said, the domestic violence law did not apply to “roommates.” The man requesting the restraining order said he has been in a “monogamous, committed relationship” with his partner, who he said punched him repeatedly during an argument. In court documents, he included photos of his swollen cheek and eye.

Just 89 minutes after the victim asked for a restraining order, Gilner denied it. The victim asked him to reconsider, and the judge issued a hand-written denial that said, in part, “Florida law does not recognize same-sex, live-in relationships as family.”

Gilner’s decision was based on Florida’s law banning recognition of same-sex marriages (which are not legal in any state), as well as the state’s law preventing gay men and lesbians from adopting children. The ban on adoptions is already the subject of an ACLU lawsuit.

The U.S. and Florida constitutions mandate that all citizens be treated equally under the law, and Coles said legal precedent clearly includes lesbians and gay men as people who are entitled to equal protection.

“We believe lives may be in the balance in Manatee County,” Coles said. “We aren’t talking about pushing for societal acceptance or for technical recognition. This involves people’s basic safety.”

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