Jackie Abell said she was caught off-guard by the Maryland Supreme Court’s ruling against a gay man whose employer, Catholic Relief Services, refused to provide health benefits for his husband after saying that doing so was contrary to its Catholic values.

“I am very disappointed by Monday’s Supreme Court ruling as I thought Maryland had been on top of protecting LGBTQ+ individuals,” said Abell, 33, of Hampden, who identifies as a lesbian. “Not only am I a part of this community, but I’m also someone who is a recruiter who hires and pays individuals at the same rate regardless of sexual orientation but based on skill set.”

LGBTQ community members in Maryland said they are stunned and disappointed by the court’s 4-3 ruling, which exposed a loophole in state laws meant to protect employees against discrimination.

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 bans 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.

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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 initial interpretation of the ruling created immediate uncertainty within the LGBTQ community.

Abell, a talent acquisition business partner for Kraft Heinz, initially worried about what the ruling could mean for her and her partner.

“My partner also relies on my company’s pay and health benefits, and if I were to work for a religious company in Maryland, neither of us would be protected,” she said. “This is disheartening and discouraging, but the fight continues, and we will not back down.”

There are an estimated 11 million LGBTQ adults in the United States, with 151,000 in the state of Maryland, according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law. The community covers a diverse spectrum of genders, identities, races and cultures.

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The 99-page ruling, which was issued Monday, shows that the unnamed plaintiff was hired by Catholic Relief Services in June 2016 as a program data analyst. At that time, he enrolled his husband in the agency’s benefits program. By November, he was informed that CRS had made a mistake and that it did not provide spousal benefits to employees in same-sex relationships.

CRS terminated his spouse’s benefits on Oct. 1, 2017.

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

On Aug. 15, CRS filed a motion for the federal court to reconsider the ruling with respect to Maryland’s state laws. The district court on Feb. 21 referred the matter 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.

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CRS did not respond to requests for comment.

Reached for comment Wednesday, a spokesperson for Gov. Wes Moore said the administration “remains as committed as ever to creating a Maryland that leaves no one behind.”

“This decision will not deter the administration from continuing the important work of safeguarding the rights of LGBTQIA+ Marylanders,” said the spokesperson, Carter Elliott IV. “Maryland is a state that welcomes, and the governor looks forward to building upon that reputation by working with community leaders, legislators, and all partners involved to ensure no Marylander is discriminated against in the workplace.”

Bryan Macfarlane, 40, poses for a portrait around Mount Vernon in Baltimore, Thursday June, 1, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

LGBTQ members say the recent ruling is a stark reminder that even in Maryland, a left-leaning state with a number of laws and regulations set up to protect the LGBTQ community, they need to remain vigilant.

“Even in a place like Maryland, we’re still fighting for even our most basic human rights,” said Byron E. Macfarlane, register of wills for Howard County.

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Macfarlane, a 40-year-old Columbia resident who identifies as a gay man, said he hoped that the court’s decision would be reversed.

“The legislature should, and I trust will, resolve these issues next session, and I hope our state will eliminate these so-called ‘religious entity exemptions’ that enable this kind of appalling discrimination,” he said.

Tia Hopkins, a Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee member, said the court’s ruling definitely exposed a loophole that Catholic Relief Services has exploited to deny benefits to same-sex couples.”

Hopkins, an activist who made history last August as one of two nonbinary candidates elected to Maryland’s Democratic Central Committee, hopes the recent ruling prompts the state legislature to “take action to make clearer that the law is intended to protect same-sex couples.”

“The Maryland Supreme Court has taken the unprecedented step to say that there is a difference between gay marriage and cis gender marriage and an employer can make a distinction that can deny same-sex marriage couples the same respect as others,” Hopkins said. “As a Catholic myself, I’m disappointed that a faith that is based on kindness towards others continues to not extend compassion to same sex-couples with something as simple as access to healthcare.”

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Tia Hopkins poses for a portrait around Mount Vernon, in Baltimore, Tuesday, May 30, 2023.
Tia Hopkins poses for a portrait around Mount Vernon in Baltimore, Tuesday, May 30, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Camila Reynolds-Dominguez, policy advocate and legal impact coordinator at FreeState Justice, said she was disappointed in the ruling and its impact on LGBTQ+ employees statewide, but added that it was not necessarily a “catastrophic blow for LGBTQ+ employment rights here.”

She added: “It’s important to underscore that LGBTQ+ employees still have protections under federal and state civil rights laws. If anything, the Supreme Court of Maryland’s ruling makes it clear that the General Assembly has much work to do this upcoming session to carefully and comprehensively protect all members of our community. Maryland has historically been a leader in protecting and advancing LGBTQ+ rights, and so this ruling should serve as a catalyst for the Assembly to enact the next wave of positive, well-crafted policies to uplift our community.”

Reynolds-Dominguez stressed that her organization is available to LGBTQ+ people experiencing discrimination in the workplace or elsewhere.

Lee Carpenter, principal at Timonium-based Offit Kurman, said the Maryland court’s decision highlights how the legal protections available to LGBTQ individuals are “complicated and evolving.”

Carpenter, 56, who lives in North Baltimore with his husband and son, added: “While federal courts have upheld the rights of gay and lesbian employees from job discrimination, this state court ruling is a sobering reminder that these protections are not immune to challenges, particularly when claims of religious freedom are involved. The case underscores the ongoing tension between safeguarding civil rights and respecting religious beliefs, and it points to the need for continued vigilance in shaping our public policy to ensure equitable treatment for all members of the LGBTQ community.”

Jabari Lyles, a Black, queer, non-binary educator, consultant and nonprofit leader who lives in Highlandtown, said the ruling sends a “damaging and disheartening” message that LGBTQ Marylanders, who make up a considerable part of the state’s workforce, can be legally discriminated against by their employer in some cases.

“When marriage equality for same-gender couples became legal in Maryland in 2013, it should be understood that these couples should enjoy the very same rights and privileges of any other married couple in Maryland,” said Lyles, 33, principal and founder of Jabari Lyles Consulting and a former senior advisor of LGBTQ Affairs for the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office. “Rulings like these are not only civil and social matters, but have a damaging effect on the health and lived experience of thousands of families across the state.”

Marriage equality was also at top of mind for Karl Jacobs, a 33-year-old Mount Vernon resident, who asked what the point was of having a legal right to get married if entities like CRS could simply “refuse to recognize it.”

“This is just another example of how the LGBTQ community seemingly has no rights when it comes to religious persecution and oppression. Anyone can denigrate or deprive an LGBTQ person in the name of ‘religious views,’ ” said Jacobs, who identifies as non-binary.

A number of LGBTQ people interviewed after the ruling shared that they thought the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, which made same-sex marriage the law of the land in 50 states, protected them and their spouses. (Maryland has legally recognized same-sex marriage since Jan. 1, 2013).

Matthew Lengel, who is engaged, thought that gay and lesbians — as well as their same-sex spouses — in would be protected in Maryland by “laws and precedent.”

Lengel, a 33-year-old pharmacist who identifies as gay, said he planned to contact his representative as a result of the ruling.

“We clearly cannot trust our court system to protect the rights of LGBTQ people and must respond with updating the laws.,” Lengel said.

Banner reporter Hugo Kugiya contributed to this report.

johnj.williams@thebaltimorebanner.com

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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