published Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Collegedale, Tenn., approves benefits for same-sex spouses

  • photo
    Kat Cooper, right, and her wife, Krista, pose for a photo during their trip to get married in Maryland this May.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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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.

Poll
Should Chattanooga provide benefits to same-sex couples?

Starting today, Collegedale is the first city in Tennessee that will offer benefits to same-sex spouses of its government employees.

For some walking out the doors of Collegedale City Hall on Monday night, that distinction is a badge of honor and a far-reaching victory. For other residents of the small town, it’s a heavy disappointment in what they say is an erosion of traditional family values they hoped their city leaders would defend.

“It looks like we are condoning same-sex marriage,” said resident Dolly Fillman. “I know they said that wasn’t what they were doing, but it looks like it to me.”

For Collegedale Detective Kat Cooper, the new policy means relief. Her wife can finally have insurance coverage.

“It is such a huge weight off our shoulders,” she said. “We don’t have to constantly worry about health expenses or sudden emergencies. It’s hard to explain how much this means to us.”

Cooper led the charge to change the policy after she was denied family health coverage for her wife, Krista. The two were married in Maryland this spring.

Four on the five-member commission voted to accept the new policy. Before he cast his supporting vote, Commissioner Larry Hanson said ironically, “You don’t know how lucky we are to get to vote on this.”

Hanson has previously spoken about how the commission has been put in a difficult position, but how he feels the decision plainly favors equality.

The lone “no,” Mayor John Turner, said he voted for the 74 who had reached out to him opposing the policy.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do as elected officials, represent the people of our district,” he said.

Some from outside Collegedale showed up for the packed meeting, including Signal Mountain mother Juliet Jackson, who made signs urging people to “speak up for traditional marriage.”

“I feel like the conservative voice isn’t heard. We’re bombarded by the other side.” she said. “A disagreement is not hatred. … I think we should be able to respect one another.”

During public hearings, speakers on both sides remained calm and composed, often reading from prepared statements.

Cooper outlined her struggle to have her marriage treated like other employees’.

“It should be of no importance to my employer if my lifelong commitment is made to a man or a woman — both are equal,” Cooper said. “Small ripples can precipitate huge waves. In this case, a great opportunity lies in your hands.”

Resident Jeff Walton said he agreed with that description — but said the “waves” would be detrimental.

“Changing the policy will legitimize same-sex unions by giving those relationships the same status as traditionally defined husband-and-wife marriages,” he said. “That’s a decision with far-reaching consequences for our city and society.”

Resident Neil Lane, calling himself “a Christian man,” said he was ashamed people would take a stand against “just plain fairness.” The pulpit should be saved for the church, he said.

“Collegedale can look forward,” he said. “Show them you are not a backwater little town.”

Others questioned the validity of the policy in a state that does not recognize same sex marriages.

City Attorney Sam Elliott explained that the policy “does not define marriage" and that it was “written to respect what Tennessee law provides.”

However, he said, the Tennessee Court of Appeals recognizes the term “family” as a “flexible term that is broad enough to include a collective body of persons who form one household and who have reciprocal, natural, or moral obligations to support and care for one another.”

He and the commission worked under that definition to rewrite the policy, he said.

After the meeting, Turner said aspects of the policy's implementation are still vague.

"We're cutting new territory here," he said.

Contact Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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