published Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Collegedale includes all unmarried partners in benefits

When Collegedale became the first Tennessee city to grant health benefits to employees in same-sex marriages, commissioners and the town were flooded with both criticism and acclaim for its inclusive stance.

But one local conservative leader claimed commissioners were actually showing "bigotry and intolerance" in their vote.

In an open letter published on the Tennessee Family Action Council blog, the conservative group's president and former state legislator, David Fowler, argued that Collegedale commissioners chose to give benefits to same-sex partnerships -- which Tennessee law does not recognize as marriage -- but excluded opposite-sex domestic partnerships.

"These council members want to grant moral equivalence to some relationships outside the bounds of natural, heterosexual marriage, but not others," he wrote. "And the basis for that supposed equivalence -- love and commitment -- they are unwilling to apply to everyone fairly and equally. And in not doing so, these four advocates for same-sex marriage on Collegedale's City Council have put on display for all to see their moral bigotry and intolerance toward all loving and committed relationships."

Fowler, an attorney and former state senator from Hamilton County who worked to pass Tennessee's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, also accused commissioners of flouting state law. The conservative group has asked state Attorney General Bob Cooper to take legal action against the city.

He finished his letter by saying the commission needed to either extend benefits to all in committed relationships "regardless of number or sex" or "admit publicly their own bias" toward all cohabitating relationships not recognized as a marriage.

In a revision of the benefit resolution passed Tuesday night, Collegedale commissioners unanimously took the first option.

The new resolution now applies to all domestic partnerships.

"If you're in a committed relationship regardless of your sexual orientation, then you'll be entitled to health benefits for your family," said City Attorney Sam Elliott.

Elliott said the original resolution sought to draw parameters around who was included in a family. A marriage document from any state seemed to be the best way to draw that line, he said.

But under Tennessee law, a marriage document for a same-sex marriage is not recognized -- meaning the city was effectively granting benefits to certain types of "legally unmarried" couples, but not to others.

"What we inadvertently did was come up with something that favored someone who is legally unmarried in Tennessee as a same-sex couple over someone who is legally unmarried in Tennessee as an opposite-sex couple," Elliot acknowledged. "This revision is meant to address that."

Elliot said that the revised law "took into consideration the concerns raised by David Fowler," though the commission's chief concern was to act within Tennessee law.

In an interview Wednesday, Fowler declined to say whether the revised ordinance is constitutional. However, he said Collegedale officials have put themselves in a "conundrum" by putting up a definition of a committed relationship when the "evidence is somewhat subjective, when there's no clear legal definition of what a continuous committed relationship is."

The new resolution now requires employees show proof of a family relationship with a "significant other."

Those wanting health benefits for their significant other must have been in a committed relationship for at least six months and "intend to do so indefinitely," the resolution requires.

The "committed relationship" needs to be proven by documents like a shared deed or utility bills. The employee and significant other must also prove that they are "jointly responsible" for each other's financial welfare, that they live in the same household, are not related by blood and that neither is legally married to another person.

Elliott said the stipulatons are what the city's insurance company was "willing to recognize."

Collegedale Commissioner Larry Hanson, who voted for the original measure, said he was in favor of granting benefits to same-sex couples -- even if it meant widening the pool of who could get city benefits.

"We had to drop this issue of a marriage, because of the Tennessee state constitution," he said. "It does open it up, but we're leaving it up to the city manager and human resources to see who qualifies."

The attorney said he doesn't think the revised law will have much effect on the city's finances, largely because Collegedale's workforce is small.

He said he did not know what the impact of such a law would be on a larger city like Chattanooga, where Councilman Chris Anderson has said he is hoping to revise the city's benefits policy to include same-sex couples.

Fowler indicated Collegedale elected officials could face a backlash from unhappy voters over their actions.

"I would not be surprised if there will not be some who will consider running or finding someone to run for office against those who disregard the will of the individuals in that community and the general ethical and moral climate within that community," he said.

And while Collegedale may have resolved issues with the original ordinance, other issues may emerge.

"They haven't addressed the next question that will come, which is loving and committed relationships between more than two people," he warned.

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

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