Chattanooga vote didn't end debate on domestic partner benefits

Chattanooga vote didn't end debate on domestic partner benefits

August 9th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, speaks to media in front of the CGAT (Citizens For Government Accountability And Transparency) campaign headquarters about their efforts to sway Hamilton County residents to vote against the "Domestic Partnership" ordinance in the August 8, 2014 election.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Corliss Cooper

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Even though 63 percent of voting Chattanoogans overturned the city's domestic partner ordinance in Thursday's election, events playing out on the national stage could make their preference moot.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday on six gay-marriage cases in four states. That included a Tennessee case aiming to force the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Even though the three-judge panel's decision is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court next year, local supporters say this is good news for expanding gay rights in Chattanooga.

"They think [this vote] is going to stop something," said Capt. Corliss Cooper, with the Chattanooga Police Department. "They will not stop this train. They can't stop it. Equality is coming to the state of Tennessee."

But Mark West, president of Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency, which led the fight against the partner benefits, said it's alarming that federal judges could supersede another level of government or the will of the people.

"They are saying the 10th Amendment [which preserves states' rights] doesn't matter anymore," West said. "It's a really dangerous precedent."

Thursday's vote repealed a Chattanooga ordinance that would have allowed employees to enroll their partners, gay or straight, in their insurance. It also would have created a nondiscrimination clause for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees.

The ordinance was put to a public vote after CGAT led a successful petition drive to force a public referendum.

While Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke supported the ordinance, his spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said Friday that he doesn't plan to sign an executive order to offer domestic partner benefits to city employees.

She said the mayor's office does plan to review its options to decide whether the city can preserve the nondiscrimination clause, Stone said.

And Thursday's vote might yet be reviewed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Chattanooga and Cooper sued the Hamilton County Election Commission in July over who got to write the words of the ballot question.

Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge W. Neil Thomas III sided with the election commission which decided the people who sponsored the petition got to write the question, in line with state law. The city appealed the decision.

If the higher court rules in the city's favor, Stone said the recent vote would be void and it would have to go on the ballot again later.

National and local advocates for gay rights said Friday they were disappointed by Thursday's vote and attributed the defeat to fear and a lack of public awareness.

Darlene Nipper, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's deputy executive director, sent a team to help organize 500 volunteers to campaign in favor of the ordinance.

She said in an interview Friday that the team will continue with its message.

"The structure is there that we can continue to build on in order to change the hearts and minds of the people in Chattanooga," Nipper said.

But West said most of the voters he spoke with, who voted against the ordinance, did so because of their beliefs, and those beliefs need to be respected.

"The government didn't originate marriage; God did," West said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.