Two proposals intended to change how city government views gay and lesbian employees will be introduced to the Chattanooga City Council in November, the sponsor of the legislation says.
One of the ordinances would extend city health benefits to domestic partners, including those in same-sex relationships. The other would amend the city’s nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation. Both ordinances will be introduced at the same time, Councilman Chris Anderson said Monday.
“I’m about 90 percent complete with all the details,” he said.
Because the proposal to extend health benefits to domestic partners would include those in same-sex relationships, questions of progress and morality have dominated much of the public debate so far. Since September, residents on both sides have voiced their positions at City Council meetings during the time reserved for public comment each week, meeting minutes show.
Anderson, the city’s first openly gay council member, said the debate is important because it sets the tone for how Chattanooga will look at itself in the future.
“We have a choice to make,” Anderson said. “We can be a progressive city that moves forward, or we can be a city that is embarrassed by our past 20 to 30 years from now. I want to be a city that’s proud of our past.”
Of Tennessee’s four largest cities, Chattanooga is the only one that does not list sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy.
Mayor Andy Berke supports both proposals, and he has had brief talks with Anderson about them. In an interview Monday, he focused on how the proposals would affect the city’s workforce, but not on the cultural implications surrounding the debate.
“City employees should be treated equally and fairly,” Berke said. “We need a motivated and excellent workforce. We want to provide the appropriate benefits that allow us to get the job done for taxpayers.”
As public pressure has increased, so too has the tone of rhetoric from some of the council members who could be deciding these issues.
“If there is anyone on the council who opposes a nondiscrimination policy for LGBT workers on moral or religious grounds, I will ask them when they plan to introduce a measure to fire city employees for other sins in the Bible, including lying, gluttony and adultery,” Anderson said.
Two conservatives on the City Council have said they will oppose the proposal to extend health benefits to domestic partners.
“You’re asking me to put a stamp of approval on a lifestyle I don’t agree with,” Councilman Larry Grohn said Monday. In strong terms, he indicated that he does not believe in same-sex marriage in general, and he questioned whether homosexuality is a choice.
“Race and gender is not a choice. The same cannot be said for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community,” he said.
Councilman Chip Henderson also indicated that he is a no vote on the domestic partners ordinance.
“I believe marriage is between one man and one woman. I believe it is a moral issue. I also believe it is a fiscal issue,” he said.
Henderson described his time campaigning for his District 1 seat earlier this year, when his constituents listed safe neighborhoods, well-maintained infrastructure and improved education as what they consider important. The ordinance to extend city health benefits “defunds the issues that are important to Chattanoogans,” he said.
Both proposals would require five votes from the City Council to become law in Chattanooga.
One council member interviewed last week is still waiting to see more details about the proposals before deciding how she will vote.
Councilwoman Carol Berz, who attended and spoke at a rally on the steps of City Hall in August in support of gay rights, denied rumors that she is co-sponsoring the ordinances.
“I very much celebrate families in loving circumstances that happen in all kinds of ways, and I very much believe in equity,” Berz said. “Where I stand is, I haven’t seen the legislation.”