Lambda Legal, an LGBT legal organization, announced June 13 that Washington County, in Maryland's panhandle, will extend spousal benefits to county employees with spouses of the same sex.
The county's decision comes in response to a complaint filed by Lambda Legal on behalf of William Taylor, a county librarian who was denied benefits for his husband. The two were legally married in D.C. in May 2010.
When Taylor requested that the Washington County Department of Human Resources add his spouse to his health care coverage, the county denied the request due to Taylor's spouse being a man.
Taylor turned to Lambda Legal, which filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights on behalf of Taylor, arguing that the county's treatment of Taylor and his husband was discriminatory and contrary to Maryland law recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages.
As a result of its decision to offer spousal benefits, Washington County will now offer an additional enrollment period – to June 22 – to allow county employees with same-sex spouses to apply for benefits, according to Lambda Legal.
''I'm very pleased that the county will now be treating its gay and lesbian employees, like me, more fairly,'' Taylor said in the Lambda release announcing the change. ''I love working at the library, but it has always bothered me that my straight colleague were being compensated a lot more than I was for the same work. Now that's changed, and it means a lot to me.''
In March, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) signed marriage equality into law in Maryland. Before the law takes effect, it is expected to go to referendum in November. Barring a vote to overturn the law, the state will begin offering marriage to same-sex couples Jan. 1, 2013.
Attorney General Doug Gansler (D), meanwhile, issued a legal opinion in February 2010 stating that Maryland would recognize same-sex marriages if they are legally valid elsewhere. O'Malley then adopted a policy that state executive agencies would follow Gansler's opinion.
Gansler's opinion was bolstered by a Maryland Court of Appeals decision in May, with the court ruling unanimously in Port v. Cowan to recognize the marriage of two lesbians who had been married in California in 2008.
''Last month, in Port v. Cowan, a case in which Lambda Legal participated, the Court of Appeals unequivocally held that marriages of same-sex couples entered out of state are recognized under Maryland law,'' Susan Sommer, Lambda's director of constitutional litigation, said in a statement. ''We are pleased that Washington County is adhering to Maryland law requiring respect for these marriages and is providing critical family benefits to all its employees. We hope every Maryland county will now follow suit."
Lambda's success in Washington County mirrors two similar Maryland actions in which the organization was able to win spousal benefits for government employees in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
Speaking with Metro Weekly, Sommer says that if the expected referendum overturns the state's marriage law, these county-level recognitions will not be threatened.
''It should not have an effect at all, one way or another,'' she says of the referendum, pointing out that the Court of Appeals focused on out-of-state marriages only.
In Maryland, Sommer adds, Baltimore City and Howard and Montgomery counties have long offered benefits to employees same-sex partners.