No Tennessee plans for same-sex benefits

No Tennessee plans for same-sex benefits

September 8th, 2013 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Gov. Bill Haslam, R-Tenn., discusses several issues at a Times Free Press editorial board meeting.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should the state of Tennessee offer same-sex benefits?

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Same-sex benefits

Here is a list of states offering benefits for same-sex partners of state employees and the date they were enacted:

Vermont (1994)

New York (1995)

Hawaii (1997)

Oregon (1998)

California (1999)

Connecticut (2000)

Maine (2001)

Rhode Island (2001)

Washington (2001)

District of Columbia (2002)

Iowa (2003)

New Mexico (2003)

New Jersey (2004)

Montana (2005)

Alaska (2006)

Illinois (2006)

Arizona (2008)

Wisconsin (2009)

Maryland (2009)

Source: The National Conference of State Legislatures

NASHVILLE- Offering health benefits to same-sex partners of public employees has been approved by Collegedale commissioners, and Chattanooga and Knoxville officials are considering doing the same.

But at the state level, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is showing little interest in taking up the issue to apply it to state employees.

"First of all, I don't sense a huge demand from most Tennesseans," the governor told Times Free Press editors and reporters last week during a wide-ranging discussion of issues.

"If you went across Tennessee and looked at it, to me, it's just, A: not something where there's a lot of demand [for], or B: in terms of folks who would favor that," he said.

State House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, agreed.

"I don't think there's great demand on the statewide level," McCormick said. "I haven't even had folks mention it to me to tell the truth. I just don't see that as an issue. I don't think we'll take it up."

Chris Sanders with the Nashville-based Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates statewide for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, took issue with the governor's assertion.

"I don't know whether he [Haslam] read the Vanderbilt poll that came out that said 62 percent, in fact, support it," Sanders said.

In the Vanderbilt University poll conducted in May, 62 percent of the 813 registered voters surveyed said they supported health insurance and other employee benefits for gay and lesbian domestic workers in general. The specific question about government employees was not asked.

The poll also found that 49 percent of Tennesseans surveyed said they support same-sex marriage or civil unions. Vanderbilt's poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. In 2006, Tennesseans by a wide margin approved a state constitutional amendment excluding same-sex marriages from official state recognition.

At the Democratic Executive Committee meeting Saturday in Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, cited the poll showing support for benefits for same-sex partners.

It's "not too far out of the realm" to offer legislation for state employees, she said. But she acknowledged that in the GOP-controlled General Assembly, the reception for any such bill would "not be a very good one."

Chattanooga Councilman Chris Anderson, who was at the executive committee meeting, plans to introduce an ordinance soon for city employees. He sees colleagues on the council passing that but doesn't hold out hope of it happening at the state level.

"[Vanderbilt] didn't poll the General Assembly when they took that poll, I think," he dryly observed. "I think this General Assembly would pass a same-sex benefits package if it mandated gun-carry permits for all same-sex partners. That's the only way they'd be OK with it."

Even if Haslam decided to support benefits and "put the full weight of the governor's office behind it, he does not have the political capital to get it through that tea party-controlled Legislature," Anderson said. "I would be shocked if they did anything that forward-thinking like recognizing all people."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures' website, 18 states and the District of Columbia currently grant health benefits to public employees in same-sex relationships.

None is in the South, a socially conservative region where churches and religious conservatives have great influence.

Sanders noted that over last weekend, gay-rights advocates rallied in the state's major cities, including Chattanooga, over same-sex issues, criticizing a "Traditional Marriage Day" resolution passed by the state Legislature in April as discriminatory.

But the rallies also attracted protesters to Chattanooga's City Hall.

"I believe in an almighty God, and he will stop it," protester Charlie Wysong told the Times Free Press.

Collegedale commissioners recently passed an ordinance granting health benefits for same-sex spouses of employees who were married in states where such unions are legal.

Sanders said efforts are under way to persuade Metro Nashville officials to approve rules similar to those in Collegedale and which are also being advocated in Chattanooga and Knoxville.

Collegedale's original move drew criticism from Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler, a conservative former state senator from Signal Mountain who had advocated for the 2006 ban on same-sex marriage in Tennessee.

Among other things, Fowler complained in an open letter on his blog that Collegedale commissioners showed "bigotry and intolerance" in their vote. An attorney, Fowler argued that 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."

He said the city 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 approved a variation on the first option. The new resolution now applies to all domestic partnerships.

Fowler said in an interview that Collegedale's original ordinance was "clearly unconstitutional" under Tennessee's Constitution.

"The city has rightly decided that if they're going to move beyond real marriages to other forms of relationships they ought not insert the moral judgment that some nonmarital relationships are more moral and ethical than other nonmarital relationships ... by including only some nonmarital relationships such as same-sex relationships and excluding nonmarital heterosexual relationships."

As to whether the revised ordinance is constitutional, Fowler said, "I'm not prepared to say that it does, but it certainly makes it a closer question than the previous ordinance."

With cities like Chattanooga and Knoxville looking at enacting similar policies, Fowler said "the question isn't just a constitutional one, the question is a moral and ethical one."

Collegedale officials have put themselves into 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," Fowler said.

For example, he questioned what would happen with a polygamous relationship in which an employee was living with several others in a "committed relationship."

Two years ago Tennessee lawmakers barred cities from requiring companies doing business for them from requiring the companies to enact anti-discrimination policies against gay employees.

But he said, "I don't see the Legislature stepping in to address what happened in Collegedale by legislation."

But he noted "a citizen that would have legal standing to challenge in court what Collegedale has done is a different issue."

Fowler said 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.

Sanders, with the Tennessee Equality Project, said "there's a growing demand in the state, at least on the local level," for benefits to partners of city or county employees.

"We'd love for the same to be offered to state employees."

McCormick said he doesn't see that happening.

"If someone were to try to apply it statewide I think there'd be a lot of resistance" in the Legislature, he said. "I don't think it would pass. If the city of Chattanooga or the city of Knoxville were to do it, I'm not sure that there'd be that much of a concern."

Contrasting that situation with the ban on cities requiring government contractors to adopt nondiscriminatory policies regarding gay and lesbian employees, McCormick said, "I don't know if it [local government benefits] necessarily retards economic development. And I think that's why we've stepped in before on some of these issues."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.