The state’s highest court has ruled against a gay Maryland man whose employer, Catholic Relief Services, or CRS, refused to provide health benefits for his husband. In doing so, the court cast light on a possible loophole in state laws meant to protect employees against discrimination.

In a 4-3 ruling filed Monday, the court determined that while the Maryland Equal Pay for Equal Work Act and the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act prohibit discrimination based on sex or gender identity, the former does not include specific language that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Fair Employment Practices Act does, but it also provides an exemption for certain religious organizations to make employment decisions based on sexual orientation that would otherwise be against the law for a secular organization to do.

The plaintiff in the case, who is unnamed, took the position that discrimination based on sexual orientation was the same thing as discrimination based on sex and gender identity. As such, any exemptions to the Fair Employment Practices Act claimed by religious entities would be nullified, he argued.

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The majority opinion, written by Justice Jonathan Biran, in essence affirmed the distinction between discrimination based on gender identity and discrimination based on sexual orientation as intended by state lawmakers when they amended the law in 2001. (The U.S. Supreme Court did not rule that same-sex couples had constitutional right to marry until 2015).

Justice Biran wrote: “To whatever extent the General Assembly intended the religious entity exemption to apply, if the General Assembly had believed that sexual orientation discrimination was also covered under sex discrimination, it presumably would have made that clear in some fashion when adding sexual orientation to the religious entity exemption.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Shirley Watts wrote that “discrimination based on sexual orientation necessarily is discrimination based in part on sex.”

The plaintiff was hired in June, 2016 as a program data analyst, at which time he enrolled his husband in CRS’s benefits program. In November, he was informed that CRS, nonprofit that carries out the will of Catholic bishops in the U.S. to help the poor and vulnerable overseas, had made a mistake and that it did not provide spousal benefits to employees in same-sex relationships. Catholic Relief Services terminated his spouse’s benefits on Oct. 1, 2017, because it considered providing them contrary to its Catholic values.

In June 2020, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against CRS in U.S. District Court of Maryland. The district court ruled on Aug. 3, 2022, that Catholic Relief Services violated federal law by revoking health benefits for the plaintiff’s spouse.

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But on Aug. 15, CRS filed a motion for the federal court to reconsider the ruling with respect to Maryland’s specific state laws. So, on Feb. 21 of this year, the district court referred the case to the Maryland Supreme Court, which heard arguments on June 2.

The federal case is ongoing and will ultimately determine whether Catholic Relief Services’ claim to a religious exemption will hold. The high court ruling was intended only to clarify the relevance of Maryland’s state laws.

You can read the Supreme Court’s ruling here.

This article has been updated to correct and clarify the specifics of Maryland state laws designed to protect workers against discrimination by their employers.