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Baltimore city employee sues after Islamic-law marriage not recognized

A Baltimore city employee and observant Muslim has filed suit against his employer for not recognizing his Islamic-law marriage, which he says has left his pregnant wife without health insurance.

Idris Abdus-Shahid and Baiyina Jones were married 17 years ago in a religious ceremony but never obtained a civil marriage license before they were married, according to the lawsuit, filed Thursday in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

“As observant Muslims, they believe that their relationship is governed by Islamic law and that a civil, or secular, marriage license is both unnecessary to their union and contrary to their religious beliefs,” the complaint states.

Abdus-Shahid and his whole family had health care under the city employees’ program when he joined the Department of Transportation in 2008 but it was canceled in 2013 following an audit of the health care benefits program, according to the complaint. He was eventually allowed to re-enroll his children but was told his wife could not sign up unless he provided a civil marriage license, according to the complaint.

Abdus-Shahid’s claims he presented his “Islamic marriage certificate” to the city court clerk’s office but was told it could not be recorded because a marriage license had not been obtained prior to the marriage ceremony, according to the lawsuit.

The couple is expecting and Jones remains without health insurance, the lawsuit states.

Abdus-Shahid’s lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment that the city’s refusal to recognize Islamic marriages is unconstitutional as well as compensatory damages including out-of-pocket fees for his wife’s medical expenses.

“The mayor and City Council of Baltimore have discriminated against plaintiffs in that they have treated them and other Muslim individuals differently based upon their religion,” the complaint states. “Other similarly-situated but non-Muslim employees are entitled to health insurance benefits for their spouses and their marriages are recognized as valid by the city.”

A spokeswoman for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield said the company administers the benefits for the city’s employee health but does not play a role in determining who is eligible for coverage. A city spokesman did not respond for a request for comment on the city’s benefits policies.

Previous private-sector employers of Abdus-Shahid have recognized the couple’s marriage and permitted Jones to have health care under his plan, according to the lawsuit.

Under state law, an individual may not be married without a license issued by the court clerk in the jurisdiction where a marriage is performed.

Abdus-Shahid and Jones were married by an assistant imam at Masjid As-Saffat, a Baltimore mosque where they are active members, according to the lawsuit. The mosque’s imam prepared the marriage certificate after the ceremony, including all of the information required under state law, according to the lawsuit.

Kathleen M. Cahill, a veteran employment lawyer not involved in the case, said she had never seen a lawsuit like Abdus-Shahid’s. A key issue, she said, is whether the city’s decision to deny health care to Jones was based on religious reasons or for a “legitimate civil policy.”

“The government has to make sure people aren’t getting employment benefits while not being married,” said Cahill, a Towson solo practitioner. “I’m not seeing there is a religious reason for them not to get a civil marriage license.”

Jennifer S. Lubinski, a Columbia solo practitioner representing Abdus-Shahid and Jones, did not respond to requests for comment.

The case is Idris Abdus-Shahid, et al., v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 24C15002071.