Two Baltimore County Police officers who were denied health benefits for their same-sex spouses have won their cases before an arbitrator, the first disputes of this kind to be decided in the department.

Officers Margaret Selby and Juanika Ballard got the word on Tuesday that an independent arbitrator ruled in their favor, meaning the county must provide health benefits to the women whom they each married out of state in the summer of 2009. In a 10-page opinion, the arbitrator ruled that the county violated the terms of the union contract by denying the benefits in August 2010.

"I'm very happy and my family is very happy," said Selby, 47, who works on patrol in the Essex precinct and has been with the department for 10 years. "I just want the same benefits that are provided to other married couples in the department."

Ballard, 32, a patrol officer in the Franklin precinct who joined the force in 2000, said she was looking forward to "being able to take care of my family, and not be worried about things I was worried about before."

Donald I. Mohler III, a spokesman for Baltimore County, said the Office of Law is reviewing the opinion from arbitrator Lois Hochhauser and will recommend a response. He said the county has the right to appeal the decision, but he could not say if the county's lawyers would advise that.

The two women filed grievances in August 2010, after the county began deducting premiums from their paychecks for spousal coverage, then reversed course and denied the benefits. Claiming the county had violated the terms of their union contract, the officers filed grievances separately and were denied by the department administration, then the county's acting labor commissioner.

Backed by their union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, and Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights advocacy group with headquarters in New York City, the two women made their arguments to the arbitrator first in writing, then in oral arguments in Towson in September of this year.

Selby, who has two grown children from a previous marriage to a man, said she and her spouse, Colette Hayward, have been together nearly 20 years. They were married in Andover, Mass. on Aug. 22, 2009.

"I wasn't really out in the department," for many years, said Selby, who previously had a career in the military, where she met the man she married. Then she worked in the U.S. Postal Inspection Service before joining the county police force. With her two daughters grown, she said, it became easier to make the decision to be more open about her sexuality, she said.

Ballard had been with her spouse, Monica Williams, for about four years before they were married in Connecticut in late June 2009. After they were married, Ballard said, she tried to get bereavement leave when Williams' father died, but she was denied and had to use other accrued leave to take the time to be with Williams.

Ballard is now pregnant with twins whom she is expecting in April.

The arbitrator's ruling turned largely on the status of marriages performed in other states where they are legal.

The county argued that Maryland law prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages, based on the law that says "only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in this state." The union argued that Maryland common law principles "recognize out-of-state marriage provided the marriage is valid in the jurisdiction where it took place," as the arbitrator described the case.

The arbitrator agreed with the union, holding that the recognition of same-sex marriages conducted in states where they are legal is "not against the public policy of the State of Maryland." She noted that Maryland "has never enacted a law barring same-sex marriages."

The decision means that the county must provide health benefits for the officers' spouses and either reimburse them for any expenses that would have been covered or make the benefits retroactive. The county was also ordered to pay Ballard for the bereavement leave she was denied.

"I appreciate that I can be treated fairly," said Ballard. "I was optimistic that equality would prevail."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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