IF YOU GO
The Collegedale City Commission meets Monday at 6 p.m. at City Hall, which is located at 4910 Swinyar Drive.
WHAT DOES THE RESOLUTION SAY?
• Collegedale employees who are legally married in any state that recognizes their marriage will be provided spousal and family health insurance.
• Any employee seeking such coverage must produce an official marriage document of the state in which they were married to the Human Resources Manager.
• This policy will go into effect at the beginning of the next renewal period of the city’s employee health insurance program, which is in January.
Collegedale City Commissioner Katie Lamb expected plenty of pushback when she announced that she supports extending family benefits to city employees in same-sex marriages.
But instead of criticism, she found herself receiving congratulatory phone calls and notes from former students across the country, and applause from acquaintances around town after the story went viral.
“I only got two negative phone calls, and a few disapproving emails,” she said. “Even some of the most conservative people I have known over my 42 years here have told me I’m doing the right thing. I’ve been surprised.”
She has also been surprised at the level of attention the city of 8,000 has received because of the proposed new policy, which is set to be voted on Monday night.
If the resolution passes, Collegedale will become the first town in Tennessee to offer government benefits to same-sex couples — a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage.
Gay rights activists across the nation are watching what happens in Collegedale on Monday night.
After the city’s five-member board voted 4-1 in June to draft a resolution extending benefits, the Human Rights Campaign — the nation’s largest LGBT equality-rights advocacy group and political lobbying organization — blogged that Collegedale “reflects a movement that is happening at the local level across the country. Where states and the federal government have failed to act, municipalities have stepped up.”
Pro-gay rights activists are apparently not the only ones watching. Collegedale residents have reported receiving robocalls from a Middle Tennessee number, urging them to fight the resolution.
Nearby cities also are viewing the action with interest.
“We haven’t had to deal with this issue with any of our employees yet,” said Soddy-Daisy Mayor Janice Cagle. “If we did, I’m not sure what we would do. By the way the laws have been going, it seems we would almost have to. … It’s just one of the bridges we’ll have to cross when we get there.”
But what does the vote mean for Collegedale itself — a community with its history rooted deeply in the conservative principles of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?
Some residents have bemoaned a policy they say funnels their tax dollars to a lifestyle they don’t support.
“Voting to give homosexuals financial benefits like normal married couples and families at the expense of taxpayers like me who believe it is morally wrong is not defending the moral position,” wrote Edwin Reynolds, a biblical studies professor at Southern Adventist University, in an open letter to commissioners.
“If you like the homosexual employee, you have a right to be kind and helpful to her, but not at the expense of those who do not want to see the law legitimizing such relationships.”
But Lamb, a member of the SDA church who formerly taught at the university, said the vote reflects a shift in thought among younger Adventists, and in shifting Collegedale demographics.
“As the city has grown — as more individuals have moved in and as the university has grown — I think that you see people looking at things from a different perspective than the ultraconservatism that was here when I first moved here,” said Lamb. “It is still very much conservative, but I think they are more open to change.”
Commissioner Larry Hanson, also an Adventist and former professor at the university, said he has seen varied opinions among church members.
“We have a very conservative element in the church, and we have a very liberal element in the church, and it runs the gamut here. We have some people who think this is turning Collegedale into Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said. “Others tell me, ‘Hey, you’re a city commissioner. You’re not representing the Adventist church in that job. You have to do what’s in the best interest for the city, not for your beliefs as an Adventist.’”
SMALL CITY, WIDE INTEREST
Commissioners first began to examine the issue of extending benefits this spring, after hearing the plight of Detective Kat Cooper.
Cooper, an 11-year Collegedale police veteran, requested benefits for her wife, Krista, after the couple married in Maryland. The couple was denied, sparking Cooper to campaign for equal benefits.
The only vote against reworking the policy was Mayor John Turner. He did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
As the resolution is currently written, the city would require only documentation showing proof of marriage, whether it is same-sex, traditional, common-law or a civil union, to receive health insurance and other spousal benefits.
The policy applies only to city employees. So does it really matter what a small town in East Tennessee chooses to include in its benefits policy?
“It is significant; it is not just a drop in the bucket. It’s especially significant in the state of Tennessee,” said Kate Oakley, legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy with the Human Rights Campaign. “I think particularly in states that are redder, we are seeing that there are cities stepping up when state law is not.”
Oakley works to establish “more-inclusive laws and policies” for city and state employees nationwide.
And she said the number of cities changing such policies is “increasing quickly.”
Georgia, which also does not recognize same-sex marriage, has a handful of government bodies that extend such benefits, explained Amy Henderson, communications director for the Georgia Municipal Association.
“It appears that few cities and counties in Georgia provide benefits for same-sex couples,” said Henderson. “Those that do are located in the metro Atlanta area.”
But big cities aren’t always where the changes start, said Oakley. No such policies exist in Memphis, Nashville or Knoxville.
“One of the things I think is interesting is that it’s not a big city-small city issue,” said Oakley. “There’s something to be said in a small community — where you actually know the people who are working for the city and you want to do the right thing for them.”
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke’s spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said the city is reviewing benefits policies “for all our employees.”
Officials with Chattanooga city government have said in previous interviews that they would like to see benefits policies broadened to include same-sex marriages.
Other Hamilton County city leaders say they have not broached the issue and don’t plan to until it arises. Red Bank Mayor John Roberts said repeatedly that he “had not thought about it.”
“When Collegedale brought it up, I thought, it’s Collegedale’s business,” Roberts said. “That’s what they’re dealing with. I don’t know how the [Red Bank] Board of Commissioners would think about it.”
He added that health care costs are the city’s biggest expense.
Collegedale pays about $4,000 per employee for individual coverage, and $10,000 for family coverage, Collegedale City Manager Ted Rogers said during a work session last week.
Rogers said at the time that cost should be a concern when drawing the lines for the new policy, and questioned some commissioners’ hopes to extend the law to cover domestic partnerships.
“At what point do you set down a standard, do you draw the line and say, ‘This is a family?’” he said.
Oakley said the “ripple effects” people fear when opening up employee benefit eligibility — like a major spike in benefits spending — do not typically occur.
Collegedale may seem like an unlikely spot for such a revolutionary and controversial policy to emerge. It developed as a primarily Adventist community around the nucleus of Southern Adventist University, which was established in its current location in 1916.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s position on homosexuality, posted on its website, states that members “believe that sexual intimacy belongs only within the marital relationship of a man and a woman. This was the design established by God at creation.”
The statement further describes Jesus’ “caring ministry and words of solace to struggling people,” and urges Adventists to follow his example of “compassion and faithfulness.”
The church has had some sway over local government and city affairs in the past. Some previous elections have been won based on the issue of annexation of stores that sold alcohol. Forming some city recreation leagues has been tricky, Hanson said, as teams are not scheduled to play on Saturdays, the church’s sabbath.
But the denomination no longer sets the tone for public policy, said Hanson. Annexation and Collegedale’s swift growth in the past five years have changed the city dynamics.
“I don’t think anyone’s taken a census — but the consensus seems to be that less than half the people in Collegedale are Adventist,” said Hanson.
But Oakley said that even within communities of faith, attitudes toward the issue are shifting.
Oakley said people of faith have “sometimes not gotten all the credit they deserve for being open-minded” on such issues.
“I think people are beginning to see that this is not so much an issue of ‘faith versus not faith’ but more a question of what’s right and fair,” said Oakley.
That is the attitude Lamb has adopted.
“I don’t see it as a religious issue at all,” said Lamb. “I see it as a constitutional right that the Supreme Court has just brought down. I see it as treating all of our employees the same. And I try to keep those issues of government and church separate.”
In his letter to commissioners, Reynolds firmly disagrees, stating that it is the commissioners’ duty to take a position that is “morally right,” despite the fact that Seventh-day Adventists have long been outnumbered in Collegedale.
“Perhaps you don’t want to be labeled as homophobic, but don’t succumb to political pressure,” he wrote. “Giving equal financial benefits by legislation is legitimizing the homosexual relationship as equivalent to a marital relationship of husband and wife. You will have to answer to God for that, not to me or other taxpayers.”
During controversial issues like these, Hanson says a guide for him is a verse from the Old Testament book of Micah.
“What the Lord wants you to be is just, merciful, and humble. That’s my goal,” he said. “Why penalize someone when they’re born a certain way? … These people suffer enough, just give them a break.”
Wolf Jedamski, church administrator and pastor of global mission at Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists, said that only about three congregants of the 3,000-member-plus congregation have called him worried about the issue.
“Some members see this as a homosexual issue or a marriage issue. The church sees this as a city issue, and we are not going to get involved in it,” Jedamski said. “It’s not really true anymore that the city of Collegedale is a city of Seventh-day Adventists. It’s grown much more diverse, and that’s a good thing.”
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at firstname.lastname@example.org of 423-757-6673.