Manatee County updates personnel policies for same sex couples

MANATEE -- Federal court orders allowing same sex marriage in Florida have prompted Manatee County to update its personnel policies to comply with the law.

"We already have authorized our first employee in a same sex marriage to have health benefits," said Robert Eschenfelder, a Manatee County assistant county attorney. "We just cut and pasted some of the regulations into our personnel policy."

In one passage of the Family Medical Leave Act, verbiage refers to "husband and wife," which will be changed to "spouse," Eschenfelder said.

Most of the county's personnel and health benefits policies are already worded in such a way gender doesn't really matter, he added.

"I have already informally advised the Human Resources and (employee health benefit) management that the County is legally required to honor all marriage licenses when applying... personnel and benefits policies, and staff has begun doing so," wrote Eschenfelder.

Life insurance policies did not need changes, as there were no restriction on designation of beneficiaries, he wrote.

County employees have

issued 41 marriage licenses to same sex couples since legal barriers prohibiting their unions fell Jan. 6, according to Christine Clyne, director of courthouse employee/public relations at the historic Manatee County Courthouse.

The response from across the state has been "overwhelmingly positive," said Hannah Willard, field director for Equality Florida, representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"In the first few days of the new year, we heard from clerks from the Panhandle to the Keys who were eager to update their marriage license paperwork to be gender-neutral and inclusive of the couples who were about to apply," said Willard. "We were pleased that the Florida's Department of Management Services swiftly issued a policy that extended benefits to same-sex spouses of state employees. Florida was ready for the freedom to marry, and we've seen evidence of that over the last several weeks."

Previously, the state did not recognize same sex marriages performed in any jurisdiction, Eschenfelder wrote in a memo earlier this month.

The Florida Constitutional provision and statute were found to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution Equal Protection Clause, he wrote.

In a clarifying order entered Jan. 1, the court directed Florida's public officers to honor same sex marriage licenses issued in this, or any other state, whether they were to same sex couples or not, he wrote.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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