Four Montgomery County Council members introduced a bill yesterday that would extend employment benefits to gay and lesbian partners of county workers, opening debate over whether to recognize relationships for which marriage is not an option.

The legislation would grant benefits such as health insurance, family leave and pension to an employee's gay or lesbian partner in the same way that such benefits typically accrue to an employee's spouse. Unmarried heterosexual couples in longtime relationships would be ineligible because they have the option of getting married, something not legally possible for gay people, council sponsors said.

If the legislation is adopted by the nine-member panel, Montgomery County would become one of the few local governments in the country to extend such benefits. Takoma Park and Baltimore recognize homosexual relationships. The Virginia Supreme Court, meanwhile, has agreed to hear arguments in a case involving Arlington's attempt to provide health benefits to domestic partners, whether they are straight or gay.

"This is legislation designed to correct a basic inequity in current county law," County Council member Derick Berlage (D-Silver Spring) said in explaining the measure at an afternoon news conference in the council building in Rockville.

The current practice of extending benefits solely to couples that are married "is discriminatory," Berlage said. "It's completely inconsistent with Montgomery County's long-standing record of support for barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

But County Council member Nancy Dacek (R-Upcounty) said she, for one, is opposed to the bill.

"I will not support the domestic partners bill," she said later yesterday. "I may be old-fashioned, but I believe in the institution of marriage, or marriage as an institution."

Cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco extend such benefits, according to a council research report on the issue.

"Very significantly," Berlage added, "many, many major employers . . . provide these benefits." Walt Disney Co., Marriott International Inc. and Bell Atlantic Corp. are examples, he said.

He estimated that several hundred of the county's 8,000-person work force might benefit from the law and that it would cost the county less than $400,000 a year.

Among those on hand to voice support of the bill yesterday was county employee Reginald T. Jetter, a division chief in the department of permitting services, who said he has a domestic partner who would benefit from the legislation.

"He is the executive artistic director of his own performing arts company," Jetter said. "And, as you know, in the arts, there's not a lot of funding. It's his own company. He does not have benefits. . . . If he gets ill and we have to go to the doctor, we often wait to see what's really happening, because we don't want to spend the money it takes to go to the doctor or visit the hospital."

The legislation would require that the couple submit a sworn affidavit that they are at least 18, are unrelated, are in a voluntary relationship, are responsible for each other's welfare and have shared the same residence for at least 12 months.

The couple also must present evidence that they share some financial obligations.

In addition to Berlage, the bill is sponsored by council members Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), Philip Andrews (D-Rockville) and Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Oct. 26. If passed, the bill could go into effect early next year.