published Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Collegedale, Tenn., set to offer benefits to same-sex partners

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    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.

After serving 11 years with the Collegedale Police Department, Detective Kat Cooper didn't think she would have any trouble adding her committed partner to her health benefits plan with the city last year.

She thought it would take a few trips to human resources and some signatures. Instead, it's been a months-long quest.

But because of Cooper's efforts, Collegedale is poised to become the first Tennessee city to extend employee benefits to domestic partnerships.

"Sometimes I don't think the general public is aware of just how much this issue -- which seems so simple -- affects their neighbors, their friends, their loved ones and coworkers," Cooper said Wednesday. "This is huge for us."

At last week's City Commission meeting, Cooper sat in the audience with her wife, Krista, and family as Collegedale commissioners voted 4-1 to include same-sex and heterosexual domestic partnerships in their employee benefits policy.

If leaders approve the change in August, the town will be the only one among the state's 346 cities to cover domestic partnerships, said a consultant with the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service.

"Honestly, I'm surprised it wasn't one of the bigger cities that pursued this first," human resources consultant Bonnie Jones said. "Collegedale is kind of on the cutting edge."

Collegedale Commissioner Katie Lamb admits it's odd that Collegedale, with its roots in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, may be first to cross this threshold.

"In 40 years the city has changed a lot," Lamb said. "I think people used to assume we were just a little Seventh-day Adventist community. It's no longer that. ...Things have changed in America, and I think that it is time for us to make sure we're treating our employees equally."

Poll
Do Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage matter to you?

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Wednesday to strike down a key provision the Defense of Marriage Act makes couples in same-sex marriages eligible for federal benefits.

Tennessee does not recognize same-sex marriage, but municipalities can decide whether to cover employees' domestic partnerships and can define what partnerships qualify, said Jones.

•••

Cooper, who specializes in child and elder abuse cases, originally requested that Krista be added to her health policy last fall.

The city's insurance carrier allowed it. It wasn't going to change costs for the city or other employees' premiums.

But the city manager said it wasn't possible. The state had not mandated it. No other municipality in the state did it.

It was a heavy blow.

"I can't convey how much it hurts to be in a committed relationship, within every capacity of a marriage, and still have basic rights denied you -- especially from your employer," Cooper said. "I put my heart and soul in my job. I do the best I can to protect this community."

But she wanted to be careful about how she protested the policy. She didn't want to badmouth the city or confront religious beliefs, she said.

"If someone believes that marriage is only between a man and a woman in the context of their religion, that is fine," she said. "But to put these kinds of stipulations on an entire class of people is wrong. I truly believe this is an equality issue."

Cooper began posting on Facebook last year about her situation. Then in May, she and Krista married at a civil ceremony in Maryland and celebrated with a large group of friends and family in the Chattanooga area shortly after.

Commissioners noticed, and soon brought the issue up.

At last week's meeting, only Mayor John Turner voted against revising the benefits policy. Turner could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Lamb said she "didn't think twice" about changing the policy, but she knows some constituents will disagree.

"Collegedale is probably a good cross-section of America as far as feelings on this," she said.

Commissioner Larry Hanson said the August vote likely will be controversial.

"It's a difficult situation," he said. "No matter which way you go, there are going to be people who are unhappy."

He said he wants to see the final draft before deciding, but after wrestling with his and his constituents' varying beliefs about gay marriage, he's leaning toward approving benefits for all employees in legal unions.

"It's not black and white to me at all," he explained.

•••

Cooper believes that if it is passed, the policy could be a model for other cities.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said the mayor wants to weigh the issue.

Chattanooga City Councilman Chris Anderson, who is the first openly gay candidate to win a contested election in Tennessee, said that establishing equal employee benefits for city employees was a "top level issue" for his term.

"Chattanooga is the kind of progressive city that should be the first major city in Tennessee to address this," said Anderson, who said he has been researching the matter. "I am looking forward to working with the mayor on this."

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

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