Cook: Omission distorts meaning

Cook: Omission distorts meaning

July 5th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Here's the version of the question that the city wants to appear on the Aug. 7 ballot.

(Note to readers: it was written by an attorney, so reading it is not going to be a real Busta Rhymes-type experience. But the following 154 words are very crucial, so please, don't skim. Anyway, if one group has its way, you'll never see these words again.)

Ready?

Shall Ordinance No. 12781 go into effect or become operative to amend the City Code of the City of Chattanooga so as to (1) ensure that City employees are also afforded equal protection against harassment and discrimination because of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression; and to (2) provide certain medical and leave benefits to a qualified domestic partner of City employees?

A qualified domestic partner is a person who states under oath they have resided with the City employee for at least 365 days; the City employee and domestic partner are in a non-platonic and committed relationship of mutual caring; neither the City employee nor the domestic partner has a spouse as recognized under Tennessee law; the City employee and domestic partner have joint financial and credit responsibilities; and the City employee and domestic partner are not related to a degree of kinship that would otherwise prevent marriage under Tennessee law.

And that's all.

The question asks voters two things: Do you want to make sure city workers can't be discriminated against because of their ethnicity, sexuality or gender identity and expression?

And do you want to give certain benefits to the domestic partner of a city worker?

Now, here's the version put forth by the Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency, or CGAT, a local group against domestic partner benefits that led a successful petition drive to put the question on the ballot.

For some reason, CGAT didn't like the city's wording of the question.

So they convinced the Hamilton County Election Commission to instead use for its ballot the language from the petition drive: Shall the city of Chattanooga's 'domestic partnership' ordinance be adopted?

And that's all, folks. From 154 words to 10. They put a shiv in it.

Their 1o-word question is followed by a statement that explains -- sort of -- what a For or Against vote means.

For the Ordinance providing for the extension of benefits in domestic partnerships and adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the city's nondiscrimination policy.

(The "Against" explanation reads the same, only replacing "For" with "Against".)

One city police officer and her partner sue, saying the language is unfair.

The city agrees, and sues too.

A judge is reviewing state law and the city charter to see who should have the authority to write the final question. Monday morning, there's another meeting at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Ballots are supposed to be printed at noon Monday.

So which question would you want to read in your ballot? Which question is fair?

Which question ... doesn't discriminate?

The City's Question is comprehensive, explaining who can and can't be considered a domestic partner while also defining who would now have equal protection against discrimination.

The CGAT Question is an act of reductionism and omission that shrinks the whole meaning into 10 words, plus a movie credit explanation.

The City's Question treats the issue seriously.

The CGAT Question subliminally mocks the question by putting the issue in quotes -- Shall ... Chattanooga's 'domestic partnership' ordinance be adopted? -- like it's not a real thing, like they're using air quotes. It omits the word "benefits," sneakily suggesting that by voting for this ordinance, you're voting to approve gay marriage in the city.

The City's Question treats you, the voter, seriously.

The CGAT Question is a spoon-fed insult, and leaves me with one question of my own:

What is CGAT so afraid of?

The city's version is factual, not persuasive. Chattanoogans can read it, think for themselves, and vote yes or no. To steer voters away from it toward such a drastically different question suggests that CGAT has a real fear of something within the city's language.

And to reduce it to a 10-word hobbit of a question does a disservice to the issue, and the people on both sides of it.

Then again, discrimination always tries to make people feel smaller than they actually are.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.