published Sunday, November 10th, 2013

Chattanooga City Council same-sex vote will be telling

IF YOU GO

What: Chattanooga City Council vote on benefits for domestic partners When: Agenda session 3 p.m.; voting session 6 p.m. Where: City Council chambers, 1000 Lindsay St.

Poll
Should the City Council approve same-sex benefits?

When the Chattanooga City Council takes up a same-sex benefits proposal Tuesday, the nine members will do more than just vote. Each will make a statement about where he or she stands on one of the most controversial issues of the day -- one that divides churches and families.

Maybe their votes will make statements about religious beliefs and traditional values. Or perhaps about equality and civil rights, about a more welcoming and progressive city.

If the measure passes, Chattanooga will become only the third Tennessee city to extend city benefits to same-sex couples after Collegedale and Knoxville.

In the months leading up to this week's vote, Chattanooga residents wrote letters and sent emails on both sides of the issue. They carried Bibles and made T-shirts they wore to council meetings. The public came to the council's doorstep and demanded that each member take a stand. You're either with us or against us, they said.

On Tuesday, there's no ducking.

But until then, there's no telling.

Several council members, well aware of the ripple effects possible from their votes, said they would closely guard their viewpoint until decision time. Those on both sides say the vote could swing their way.

"I'm separating out the broad areas of discussion and weighing how they fit with my own inclinations," Councilman Moses Freeman said. "This is something that is larger than me."

Freeman wouldn't say how he'll vote, but said there's a lot to weigh. There are legal issues, religious arguments and debates over civil rights.

Councilwoman Carol Berz said she knows how she'll vote but wouldn't discuss it before the council meeting. However, she recently was a guest speaker at a rally organized to advocate gay marriage.

"I know what I'm going to do, but I don't want it up front ahead of time, because I want to say something when I give my vote," she said. "At this point I'm not publicizing my vote. The reason is ... this one is important."

Councilman Larry Grohn, who is voting against the bill, said he believes the decision could go either way. He said he won't vote for a measure that bypasses the state constitution by awarding benefits to employees in same-sex unions and unwed couples. Tennessee does not recognize same-sex or common-law marriage.

"I have a problem with loopholes in laws that allow a situation that our constitution says we don't approve," he said. "Either it's right or it's wrong."

Councilman Chris Anderson, who will introduce the bill Tuesday, said he believes he has at least a majority, which would be five votes.

"I believe a majority of this council wants Chattanooga to move forward in a meaningful and progressive way," he said.

Approving the bill would move Chattanooga closer to ending what he called the largest form of legal discrimination in the country.

But Councilman Russell Gilbert, who is black, said he doesn't see this as a civil rights issue. Gilbert, who said he will vote against the ordinance, doesn't agree with the comparison because he believes sexual orientation is a choice.

"I can't change what I am. I can't decide one day that I'm not black anymore," he said.

Councilman Chip Henderson said he will vote no, while Councilman Jerry Mitchell was out of the country and unavailable. Councilman Ken Smith didn't return multiple calls to his office and cellphone.

Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem said he thinks he knows how he will vote, but he still has hesitation committing to one side.

"I'm taking it very serious and weighing all the sides, not to allow for emotion but to understand the total impact of the decision," he 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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