When Chattanooga officials voted on the city's $212 million budget, a handful of residents showed up to learn what their tax dollars were paying for. Yet an ordinance that hasn't even been introduced is drawing crowds that pack the seats at City Council meetings with protesters and supporters.
Since Councilman Chris Anderson announced in late August that expanding health benefits to employees in same-sex relationships was one of his top priorities, the issue has become the most-discussed topic among residents attending weekly council meetings. And interviews with key council members suggest they are divided along the same lines as their constituents.
Dozens of members of a Baptist congregation and at least 25 friends or supporters of an engaged gay couple filled the City Council chamber over the past two weeks to make their case for whether same- sex partners should be given health insurance and other employee benefits. Some clutched Bibles; others wore T-shirts bearing the message "Equal benefits for equal work." One group created a Facebook page urging supporters to show up.
The discussion centers on whether the City Council is being fair to all city employees or whether this is a moral issue that can't be ignored and could end up burdening taxpayers.
"Employees who are doing the same job deserve to receive the same benefits regardless of sexual orientation," local resident Megan Smith told council members Tuesday.
Others asked whether their taxes should pay for an initiative that goes against their beliefs.
"I don't want my taxpayer money, property taxes, going to fund something that directly contradicts my faith," said Johnny McCollum. "I would say just like I don't want abortion paid for by taxpayer dollars."
This issue is at the forefront in other cities nationwide and was brought closer to home in the past week.
Knoxville this week became the second city in Tennessee to expand health benefits to domestic partnerships, including employees in same-sex relationships, announcing that benefits will go into effect in January. The small town of Collegedale paved the way in Tennessee, becoming the first city to expand benefits to domestic partnerships after a gay detective pushed for the change.
Nashville may not be far behind. Mayor Karl Dean announced this week that a panel is being formed to study what such a policy change would cost the city.
Anderson originally announced that his proposed ordinance would be ready by October. He said this week that the proposal has gone through multiple revisions and likely will be on the table in November.
WHAT PEOPLE SAY
A week after Anderson announced his position, an activist and his son came to a City Council meeting to warn officials against expanding benefits.
With Bible in hand, Charlie Wysong called such a proposal "evil and wicked" and referred to homosexuality as sodomy.
But council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem cut him off and sternly ordered Wysong to sit down.
"You're crossing the line; this is not church. This is a house of city business," Hakeem said.
About 25 members of Temple Baptist Church, where Councilman Chip Henderson is a member, came to the council meeting two weeks ago. Their pastor asked the council to consider the issue not just from a moral perspective, but from a health perspective.
"I do as a pastor believe this is a moral issue and that a life of homosexuality is sinful," said pastor Shad Smith. But, "this matter before this council is not simply a moral issue ... this is an unhealthy lifestyle."
This week, the same number of ordinance supporters showed up and stood while Megan Smith told the council that church and state should be separate on this issue and that it's not about morality but equal rights.
Another woman asked why some employees should be able to provide health insurance for their families while gay couples cannot.
"They are already doing work but they are being denied rights given to other folks, but they are doing the same exact jobs. That is the literal definition of discrimination," she told the council.
Some city officials say they aren't surprised by the public turnout each week.
"I would expect it because it's a very serious issue," Hakeem said. "There's great passion on both sides."
Hakeem said he hasn't taken a side but is weighing the impact of such a decision morally and financially. Either way, he said, there will not be a vote on the issue until the City Council knows what providing benefits to same-sex couples would cost the city.
"That question has to be answered before any of us vote on this issue," he said.
Henderson is firmly opposed to same-sex marriage and said the Bible can't be taken out of this debate.
"You can't legislate morality; I get it," he said. "But at the same time, we don't reward what we perceive as immorality."
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke supports giving benefits to same-sex couples.
"Our employees are an important part of the city. We want to make sure we ... find the best ways to treat them equally and fairly," he said following a Democratic fundraiser in Nashville in September.
But one community leader said this issue should not be up to a few leaders in authority. Voters should decide whether they want to pay for same-sex partner benefits, said Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West.
"They should put the question to a referendum vote. I challenge the City Council to do it," said West. "If they feel so strongly that this is something the city of Chattanooga would concur with, put it on a ballot."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.