Maryland to unmarried gay employees: Get married or lose benefits

The State of Maryland is sending an unusual message to hundreds of state employees: get married or lose your benefits. It can be chalked up to the fallout from unintended consequences.

Its a change that would affect several hundred state employees by the end of the year. That may not be a large number, but some activists worry it may set a precedent that would affect many more.

Marilee Lindemann runs the LGBT Studies program at the University of Maryland. She fought for benefits for unmarried gay couples and doesn't want the state to take them away.

"It's a decision that was made prematurely given the uneven landscape for gay and lesbian couples across the country," Lindemann says. "It's something that forces people into marriage."

But now that same-sex marriage is legal in Maryland, shared benefits for state employees who are in a same-sex domestic partnership will end on December 31.

Openly gay Maryland delegate Maggie McIntosh, however, tells ABC7 that ending benefits for unmarried couples is a fair trade-off for legal gay marriage, saying "We offered benefits because we were not treated equally in the eyes of the law when it came to marriage. Now we are. We wanted to be equal. We need to embrace that."

The state admits it made the change as part of the budget process, as a way to avoid having to pay equal benefits to heterosexual couples who may challenge the law in the future.

That makes sense to former constitutional law attorney Julie Schroeder.

"They are likely to get a challenge from a heterosexual couple seeking benefits in the same way that a homosexual couple is entitled now, thus doubling their budget for those sorts of benefits," Schroeder says. "So to me it does sound like a budgetary rule."

This change only impacts Maryland state employees. In Montgomery County, benefits have been offered to unmarried gay couples since 2002 and there are no plans as of now to change that.