A plan being considered warily at City Hall would grant a form of legal status to gay, lesbian and other nontraditional households in Baltimore.
By law, some of these couples cannot marry. But a mayoral task force has recommended creation of a city registry for "domestic partnerships," a move that would grant them a few of the benefits of marriage.
For example: Shannon Avery and her significant other have lived together for 2 1/2 years. They share expenses, housework and a bank account.
As a contractual employee in the state public defender's office, Ms. Avery receives no health benefits. Her partner, however, is a Baltimore City employee with full medical coverage.
If they were married, says Ms. Avery, she would qualify for coverage under her partner's benefit package. Problem is, they're both women.
Under the proposal now before Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, any two Baltimore residents forming a household would have a new way of legally documenting their domestic arrangement and, in some cases, obtaining more benefits.
Besides gay and lesbian couples, the possible combinations include heterosexuals, elderly siblings or single mothers sharing expenses.
The measure was endorsed this month by the mayor's Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Issues. In addition to creating the registry, the plan would grant medical benefits and family or bereavement leave to domestic partners of Baltimore City employees.
The concept of expanding the traditional definition of family is not new. Throughout the nation, a number of private companies, such as Levi Strauss, Lotus Corp. and Ben and Jerry's ice cream company offer health and leave benefits to domestic partners of employees.
And increasing numbers of cities including San Francisco, New York and Seattle offer domestic-partnership registries, or health benefits for domestic partners, or both.
Last summer, Takoma Park became the first Maryland municipality to approve both a registry and extension of city benefits to domestic partners.
But the Baltimore proposal is among the most broadly written. Drafted by the Baltimore Justice Campaign, a gay rights organization, the plan does not limit the registry to same-sex couples, nor does it bar blood relatives from registering as domestic partners.
Any two people of any sex, related or not, who are 18 years old and reside together in the city, could pay a fee and register as domestic partners. However, they would have to agree to joint responsibility for basic living expenses, such as food and shelter.
"The proposal doesn't just apply to gay and lesbian couples," says Ms. Avery, co-chair of the Baltimore Justice Campaign. The plan "also applies to heterosexual couples who live together or to elderly people who live together for financial reasons. It reaches out to the vast majority of families that don't fit the mold of 2.2 children and a working mother and father."
The registry is not an alternative marriage registry, says Ms. Avery, who is an attorney. Marriage is a legal relationship governed by state law. Only a man and a woman can marry, and the relationship bestows certain legal rights such as filing joint tax returns. In addition, spouses gain Social Security or veterans' benefits or inheritance benefits.
Though still in draft form, the Baltimore plan has been reviewed by Mayor Schmoke in meetings with proponents, his task force and members of the City Council.
"The big issue is whether there is a demonstrated need for a local domestic partnership ordinance," Mr. Schmoke said Thursday. "Is there a need for local legislation, or is there a need for state legislation? I think we ought to come to some consensus on that before we move forward.
"If we don't do it right, that is, really investigate the need and
explain what this law is designed to do, we are going to get a lot of harsh rhetoric coming from many different sources in the community."
Some City Council members also have doubts.
"We need to look at health care for all people and not look at forcing domestic partnerships," says Vera P. Hall, a 5th District Democrat.
"I would be inclined to support the proposal under certain conditions," says Anthony J. Ambridge, a 2nd District Democrat. Though he had not read the draft, Mr. Ambridge voiced concerns about fraud and the financial impact on the city.
Others, however, say the plan has merit. "The way I feel about legislation like this is there are certain social issues that deserve consideration and a public hearing," says Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, a 3rd District Democrat.
Barbara Samuels, head of the mayor's task force, says that private companies could use the registry to verify domestic partnerships, and this would simplify the process of extending benefits to such households.
It's not fair to deny benefits to a household member just because the domestic arrangement is nontraditional, says Ms. Samuels, a lawyer for the ACLU.
To Baltimore gays, the plan has symbolic value because a registry would validate their relationships, in addition to extending benefits. "I think the city should recognize love in any form," says Alan Stephens, a city school teacher and member of the Baltimore Justice Campaign.
"If your wife or even your grandmother or an aunt dies, the city gives you a day or two to go to the funeral," he says. "But not if your lover dies."
In Seattle, whose registry covers only city employees and their domestic partners, benefits were extended to those partners in May 1990. So far, 603 of Seattle's roughly 10,000 city employees are registered, and the great majority of those partnerships -- 70 percent -- are heterosexual couples.
In the program's first 20 months, Seattle spent an additional $1,168,000 to cover domestic partner benefits, says Sally Fox, municipal benefits and safety manager. That amount represents percent of the city's total medical and dental premium costs, she says.