Last edited: December 19, 2004

Montgomery OKs Benefits for Same-Sex Partners

Washington Post, November 30, 1999

By Scott Wilson

The Montgomery County Council passed legislation today extending health benefits to the live-in partners of homosexual county employees, setting aside criticism that such a move would undermine the institution of marriage and skirt the collective bargaining process.

By a 6-to-3 vote, the council made Montgomery part of a national trend within public and private sector organizations struggling in a tight job market to keep their best employees. The county is the third jurisdiction in Maryland to adopt so-called domestic partner benefits, following Baltimore and Takoma Park.

The bill’s advocates argued that because it is illegal for homosexuals to marry, denying their live-in partners health benefits amounts to discrimination. County officials estimate that only a small number of Montgomery’s 8,000 county employees will include same-sex partners on their health benefits – several hundred at most – and the annual cost to county taxpayers is estimated to be less than $400,000.

"This is not a benefits bill. This is a bill to combat discrimination," said Council member Derick Berlage (D-Silver Spring), the measure’s sponsor. Preventing the partners of homosexual county employees from receiving their health benefits "is blatantly discriminatory and something the county should not allow to continue."

But the measure has inflamed social conservatives, who say the measure undermines traditional heterosexual marriage by extending the rights that come with it to homosexuals. In the front row of the council hearing room, members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union held up yellow signs imploring council members to: "Say No to Sodomy Subsidies."

Bunny Galladora, national public relations director for the group, said the temperance union is consulting with lawyers to determine ways of preventing the bill from becoming law. She noted that sodomy is a felony in Maryland.

"This bill when made law will benefit those who are engaging in the unnatural, immoral and illegal act of sodomy," said Galladora, who declined to discuss the size of her group’s membership. "We think this bill should more appropriately be named the Sodomy Subsidy Bill for the Gay 90s."

The usually liberal council, too, was divided over whether to extend benefits increasingly commonplace in private and public-sector workplaces around the country. Since 1990, the number of companies offering domestic partners benefits has grown from a few dozen to almost 3,000, including some of the nation and region’s biggest employers.

Across the country, domestic partner legislation frequently has been viewed and debated as a proxy for legalizing gay marriage, an issue that surfaced in Montgomery County. Indeed, to make the bill more palatable to some wavering members, the council deleted a passage that read "an employee’s partnership with a person of the same sex can have all the attributes of a marriage except the legal recognition of marriage."

But other council members had larger concerns about the process by which the benefits were being granted. Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) said that extending health benefits to county employees, the vast majority of whom are union members, undermined the collective bargaining process that determines salary and benefits packages.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has said he will sign the bill. He and the county’s largest public employee union signed a memorandum of understanding yesterday agreeing to make benefits approved by the council part of the employment package – a largely symbolic gesture.

"I do not believe that the executive can go to the table in a give-and-get process if we give it all away outside those negotiations," Praisner said.

The council rejected Council president Isiah Leggett’s proposal to extend health benefits to the live-in partners of heterosexual employees, largely because those workers are allowed by law to marry. But several council members said the county should study ways of extending partners to other family members currently excluded from employee health benefits, including dependent relatives.

To qualify live-in partners for health benefits, county employees must prove they have shared the same legal residence for at least one year, signing an affidavit under penalty of perjury to support the claim.

Council members Berlage, Leggett (D-At Large), Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), Philip Andrews (D-Rockville), Blair G. Ewing (D-At Large) and Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) supported the bill. Council members Praisner, Nancy Dacek (R-Upcounty) and Betty Ann Krahnke (R-Potomac/Bethesda) voted against it.

"It means my partner will be able to start having routine medical checkups," said Reginald Jetter, a division chief within the county permitting office whose partner has been without health insurance for the five years they have lived together. "And it means I will be getting the same benefits as other county employees. It relieves a lot of the anxieties my partner and I have about health care and the cost of health care."

Of course, all other issues aside, the WCTU is wrong on the criminality of sodomy in Maryland. While the two Maryland anti-sodomy laws (27-553 and 27-554, the former going back to the immediate post-colonial period, and probably in turn, to Henry VIII) are still technically on the statute books, early this year, as the conclusion to an unusually tortuous judicial/executive-branch process, they were ruled inapplicable to consensual, non-juvenile sodomy in Maryland.
Frank Kameny

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