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Washington County to offer benefits to librarian's same-sex spouse

June 18, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • Bill Taylor is shown at his desk at the temporary Washington County Free Library headquarters off Western Maryland Parkway. A picture of his spouse, Mark Noble, is in a frame on his desk.
Photo by Andrew Schotz

Bill Taylor, who is openly gay, said he hasn’t felt any prejudice during his four years as a librarian in Washington County.

But after marrying his partner in Washington, D.C., and asking if his spouse could be covered under his health insurance plan, he was told no.

“It felt a bit like (being) a second-class citizen,” he said.

Starting in July, though, the county will offer Taylor the same benefits employees in opposite-sex marriages get, a change celebrated by Lambda Legal, an organization that advocates for gay and lesbian rights.

The county’s decision comes after the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled last month in a divorce case, Port v. Cowan, that the state must recognize out-of-state marriages.

The county and Lambda Legal offered differing accounts of Taylor’s attempt to win insurance coverage for his spouse.

Washington County spokeswoman Sarah Lankford Sprecher wrote in an email that Taylor initially “was denied because he failed to meet the open enrollment period afforded to all employees. This year he timely applied, and the plan language was changed to comply with changes in State law.”

However, Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal’s director of constitutional litigation, said the county told Taylor that same-sex spouses were ineligible for coverage.

Taylor made a verbal request, after he got married, about whether he could add his spouse to his insurance coverage and was told he could not. Then, Taylor wrote a letter to the county’s human resources department, again asking about coverage.

According to Sommer, the response was: “Review of your file indicates that you did not seek to add your spouse to the insurance plan during the open enrollment period and therefore the county is unable to make a change to the coverage. The county’s current plan does not offer coverage to same sex spouses. However, the county is monitoring possible state legislation concerning this issue.”

Asked to reconcile the two positions — that it was a timing issue vs. a same-sex spouse prohibition — Sprecher said she was providing information from the county attorney and had no additional details.

Taylor and his husband, Mark Noble, a part-time scuba instructor, live in Hedgesville, W.Va., with their four dachshunds.

The couple wed in Washington, D.C., in May 2010, a few months after same-sex marriage became legal there.

Taylor said he remembers asking the county shortly after the wedding if he could enroll his new husband and was told he couldn’t.

Then, in July 2011, he wrote a letter asking about coverage. After the county denied him again the following month, he contacted Lambda Legal, which wrote a more formal letter to the county in January 2012.

“The County said no again, so we filed a complaint with the Md. Commission on Civil Rights in March,” Taylor wrote in an email.

During an interview Monday, Taylor said a Herald-Mail story about a local court case involving two women married in Washington, D.C., helped convince him to seek benefits for his husband. In that case, one woman was accused of threatening the other woman, who declined to testify on the stand, invoking a spousal privilege.

Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley ruled in June 2011 that under a legal reciprocity between states, Maryland can recognize an out-of-state marriage and, therefore, the spousal privilege.
Lambda Legal was involved in the case.

Sommer said Beachley’s decision did not persuade Washington County to grant Taylor’s request for benefits; that change didn’t come until after the higher court decision last month.

Asked if Washington County is now granting same-sex spousal benefits to all eligible employees, Sprecher wrote: “We grant County health insurance benefits to all employees who satisfy all requirements stipulated in the health insurance plan.”

Sprecher wrote “unknown” to questions about how many county employees might receive additional insurance coverage and how much it might cost the county.

Asked about the open enrollment period, Sprecher wrote that it has been extended for all county employees and now concludes Friday.

Taylor said getting insurance coverage for his spouse was important. He said he loves his job and his co-workers, but it was unfair that he got lesser compensation, through insurance coverage, than they did.

Sommer said Taylor is the first Lambda Legal client to win same-sex spousal benefits from a Maryland government body since the Maryland Court of Appeals decision and she hopes other governments take note.

“I feel like it was a contribution to moving things forward a little,” Taylor said.

The Maryland General Assembly voted this year to legalize same-sex marriage. However, opponents have petitioned the issue to referendum; voters will decide in the November general election.

Taylor said people should be open about who they are.

“People get to realize that gays and lesbian people are just people,” he said. “I think that’s how, eventually, prejudice disappears, whatever kind it is.”

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