The O'Malley administration has notified state employees in same-sex relationships that they won't be able to include domestic partners in their health insurance anymore.
If they want coverage, they'll have to get married.
The policy change is the result of the new Maryland law allowing same-sex marriage, which took effect Jan. 1. The thinking is that offering health coverage to an unmarried same-sex partner doesn't make sense anymore, officials said, particularly since an unmarried heterosexual partner doesn't have the same right.
But the move by the administration — which introduced domestic partner benefits in 2009 and championed marriage equality last year — has drawn polite dissent from some of the administration's staunchest allies.
"It's really not the most equitable thing to be doing right now," said Carrie Evans, executive director of the gay and lesbian rights group Equality Maryland.
But the administration — backed by at least one prominent lesbian lawmaker — contends the decision is a matter of simple fairness.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said he extended domestic partnership status to same-sex couples, but not unmarried straight couples, precisely because people of the same gender were not permitted to marry.
Now that same-sex couples can marry, spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said, that reason no longer exists.
If Maryland continued to offer same-sex couples two paths to benefits and opposite-sex couples only one, Guillory said, the state could face lawsuits. The administration has received legal advice that trying to maintain the status quo could open the state to a challenge from a straight couple under the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
State workers who currently have their domestic partners covered have been told they will lose that eligibility as of next Jan. 1 — unless, Guillory said, they marry.
She added that the date could be subject to change.
Employees in same-sex relationships who don't now have the domestic partner coverage will not be allowed to apply for it, she said.
According to the state, the decision affects relatively few of its employees — fewer than 300, including retirees. But it illustrates the types of adjustments Maryland and other states that allow same-sex marriage must make to bring laws and policies in line with the new reality.
Not every state that recognizes same-sex marriage is taking the same tack.
In Washington state, where voters approved same-sex marriage the same day Marylanders did, domestic partners of state employees will continue to get health benefits. Lisa Harper, a spokeswoman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, said the state will automatically consider those employees married — for benefits purposes — starting in June.
Spokeswomen for two human resources professional associations say the private sector appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach as definitions of marriage change.
When Melissa Sharp of the organization World of Work asked private firms if they were changing their health benefits for domestic partners in states with same-sex marriage, they all said no. Kate Kennedy of the Society for Human Resources Management said she was unaware of any changes stemming from new marriage laws.
Evans, of Equality Maryland, said she doesn't see the O'Malley administration's action as hostile but as premature. She said officials didn't consult her group before promulgating the policy — but she wishes they had.
"We would like to see domestic partnership benefits on the books for same-sex couples until there's a level playing field with regard to marriage," she said.
While Maryland extends marriage rights and workplace discrimination protections to gays and lesbians, Evans said, the federal government and most other states are not as accommodating.