published Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Chattanoogans have say on same-sex benefits; debate shifts to City Council (with video)

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    People fill the Chattanooga City Council room.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
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Domestic Partnership Overview
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Domestic Partneship FAQ

People flocked to City Council. Supporters wore red in favor of equality, while opponents clutched well-worn Bibles to stand up for traditional marriage.

Pastors preached and ordinary folks carried folders full of prepared speeches as the City Council chambers swelled until fire officials barred the doors. It was one in, one out. A monitor played the scene in the lobby for those left outside.

For hours Tuesday, proponents and opponents argued the larger moral and societal implications of a proposal to expand benefits to employees in domestic partnerships, including gay couples. But Chattanooga police Lt. Corliss Cooper said the spectacle wasn't about just taking a stand.

If approved, she said, the change would allow her to better care for her family, providing health benefits to her partner, who has been left off her plan because the city and state don't recognize their union.

"We work, we pay our bills ... we contribute to society the same way. All I'm asking for is the same rights for equal work," she told the council.

This was the last chance for residents to publicly tell the council why they should vote for or against the proposed ordinance, which would expand city employees' medical, dental, vision and voluntary life insurance benefits to their domestic partners who apply.

Now the debate will shift to the City Council, which will decide whether the measure becomes law.

On Tuesday, Councilman Chris Anderson will formally introduce the proposal, and he said he believes he has enough votes to win.

Councilman Ken Smith said he wasn't ready to say what side he was on. Councilman Jerry Mitchell was out of town. Councilman Larry Grohn has spoken openly about opposing the ordinance, and Councilman Chip Henderson has said he believes the definition of marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

City officials also laid out the cost of extending same-sex benefits, saying the city would likely end up paying an additional 1 percent of the city's annual benefit costs, or about $168,000.

At both Tuesday's public hearing at 3:30 and at the regular council meeting that followed, pastors from multiple denominations got up, along with police officers, advocates, tea party members, gays and lesbians, teachers, a former state representative and a student speaking for the first time before the council.

Those against the ordinance said God would send his judgment, argued that being gay is a choice, contended that their tax dollars shouldn't go to fund something against their beliefs and challenged the council to put the decision to a referendum vote. Tea party activist Donald O'Connor challenged Anderson to a debate at Howard High School.

"Marriage is a unique relationship among all human relationships," said City Church Pastor Mike Chapman. "But in the last few years we've seen marriage looked upon as a relic. The matter before us is about benefits, but underneath it are other concerns that are raised. It's another hit by the chisel against the pedestal of marriage."

Yet Bibles were used on both sides of the debate.

Other pastors like Rock Metropolitan Community Church's leader Tim Carol argued that the issue is about justice: "Let us not find ourselves on the wrong side of history, I implore you."

Pam Rumancik, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, said Jesus teaches people to love their neighbor and everyone is your neighbor so people should want to make sure their neighbor is treated well.

Another man stood and said he was a gay Christian and it wasn't a contradiction. Several whispered or nodded in approval.

Others like Collegedale Detective Kat Cooper, who fought for the same benefits in her city and won, said religion has nothing to do with the argument.

"Treating people equally doesn't infringe on anyone's religious liberty," she said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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