Baltimore County's Health Care Review Committee on Dec. 15 approved the county executive's recommendation to extend benefits to legally married county employees in same-sex relationships, although Maryland does not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The approval comes two weeks after an arbitrator ruled that two Baltimore County Police officers were eligible for spousal benefits, including adding their spouses to health care coverage and spousal bereavement leave. The new policy will take effect starting on Jan. 1, 2012.
As part of the earlier decision, issued as part of binding arbitration in response to a lawsuit filed by LGBT civil rights organization Lambda Legal and the county police union, arbitrator Lois Hochhauser found that denying spousal benefits to police officers legally married in other states was discriminatory and in conflict with the county's agreement to give benefits to spouses legally recognized under Maryland law.
Guided by a legal opinion issued in February 2010 by Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) and a policy adopted by state executive agencies under Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) recognizing the validity of out-of-state same-sex marriages, Hochhauser found that Officers Margaret Selby and Juanika Ballard were entitled to spousal benefits. Selby was married to her spouse in Massachusetts and Ballard was married to her spouse in Connecticut.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) praised the committee's decision to issue health care benefits in a press release.
''I am pleased that the Health Care Review Committee acted on my recommendation this week,'' Kamenetz said. ''Extending these benefits to couples legally married in other states is the right thing to do.''
''Sometimes, getting a fair deal for a couple of people opens the door to justice for many more,'' Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal's director of constitutional litigation, said in a prepared statement. ''We applaud Baltimore County for this important step forward in providing critical benefits for the families of its employees.''
Regarding Kamenetz's initial press release only addressing health care benefits, Sommer said she was interested to see what they determined regarding other spousal benefits. Not offering such benefits to same-sex couples could open the county to future lawsuits or binding arbitration from other married same-sex couples.
''The thing that people are generally more focused on is health care, because it places more of a financial burden on families,'' Sommer told Metro Weekly. ''Hopefully, you won't have to use bereavement leave, but when you need it, you need it. The important thing is we don't want our families disrespected.''
Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for the county, later clarified that the decision to grant health care benefits also applies to extended benefits such as family and bereavement leave, which Ballard had been denied when her father-in-law died.