City Council delays action on ordinance to protect gay and lesbian employees

Supporters and detractors of the bill voice concerns at meeting

Newlyweds Val Hill, 25, left, and Megan Turner, 24, hold their 3-month-old little girl, Ellie Hill, during the Chattanooga City Council meeting Tuesday evening. Next week, the council will take up a nondiscrimination ordinance after portions of the ordinance had to be rewritten.
Newlyweds Val Hill, 25, left, and Megan Turner, 24, hold their 3-month-old little girl, Ellie Hill, during the Chattanooga City Council meeting Tuesday evening. Next week, the council will take up a nondiscrimination ordinance after portions of the ordinance had to be rewritten.

An anti-discrimination ordinance to protect gay and lesbian Chattanooga employees was delayed, but that didn't stop a host of supporters from flocking to the City Council chambers Tuesday.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilmen Chris Anderson and Moses Freeman, was set for a first vote next week but was delayed after others on the council questioned procedure. The council will discuss the issue during a planning meeting next week, then hold a committee meeting and vote on July 14.

In other business

The Chattanooga City Council on Tuesday: * Voted to support the Environmental Protection Agency's clean power plan, joining cities such as Nashville, Knoxville, Austin, Texas, and Portland, Maine. * Voted to issue $15 million in bonds on a litany of infrastructure improvements at the Family Justice Center, city parks, intersections across the city and at Wilcox Tunnel. * Confirmed James Adams as the city's new fire chief. * Confirmed Bobby Stone, husband of city spokeswoman Lacie Stone, and reappointed Bryan Patten and Mike Davis to the Stadium Corporation Board. * Accepted a $196,404 U.S. Justice Assistance Grant to buy 121 body cameras for city police. The city will contribute $98,202 toward the grant.

photo Concerned citizen Charlie Wysong makes his three-minute opinion comment to the Chattanooga City Council concerning the upcoming nondiscrimination ordinance Tuesday.

The proposed ordinance would prohibit city employees from harassing their colleagues based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And it would keep the city from denying someone a job based on those two factors. Sexual orientation and gender identity would be added to a list of other protected qualities already in law, such as race, religion, ethnicity and political affiliation.

Local tea party leaders and others on the council said the delay was needed to make sure the ordinance was worded correctly.

Supporters of the bill said they were just stalling.

Megan Turner, 24, is in that camp. She married her wife, Val Hill, 25, on Friday after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on same-sex marriage. Both are U.S. Army veterans and care for their 3-month-old child.

She urged council members Tuesday not to put the ordinance off. She almost lost her job because of her sexual orientation.

"I take care of elderly people. And someone wanted my hours so they went to the family and told them I was gay," she said after addressing the council. "I'm the bread-winner in our family. It nearly cost me my job."

She did not intend to speak at council, but she felt the need after hearing opponents of the law speak.

"What I really want to ask people is, why would I choose a harder life? Why would I choose to not have benefits, why would I choose to not get married, why would I choose to be shunned?" Turner asked.

Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party and leader of a group that worked to see a previous anti-discrimination and same-sex partner benefits ordinance repealed, said Tuesday he welcomed the legislation, but he wanted to make sure it was fully vetted.

"It's a wide-open document and it allows for some unintended consequences. I hope they would consider some input from the public for some improvements to make an ordinance we can all be happy with. Councilman Anderson should not feel like we are in favor of discrimination," West said.

Still others voiced concern on religious grounds.

Charlie Wysong, a local pastor who also led efforts to have the previous same-sex benefits ordinance voted down, cautioned the council to seriously consider its actions.

"We need to be measured in what we do. This is not the first time that a nation has departed from God's law," Wysong said. "Man is in a continual battle to get himself free of the laws of God."

That drew a response from Freeman.

"I've heard those same remarks before and quotes from the Bible before. I particularly heard it as a kid when the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was unconstitutional. That was thought to be against God's law, as well," Freeman said.

Anderson, who is gay, said West and others are stalling to build support against the proposed ordinance just as they did before.

"I have a hard time based on [West's] prior statements thinking that he doesn't support discrimination against the LGBT community. That doesn't mean a person can't change, and I hope he has," Anderson said.

Councilman Chip Henderson was the main force on the council Tuesday to get the vote moved back.

He said it was to be able to give the public more time to get involved.

"This was part of an ordinance that was of great interest to the public. And I think we are giving the perception that we are rushing something through," he said Tuesday in strategic planning. "Unless there is someone who is filing a complaint who is being discriminated against, I don't see the rush."

Councilman Ken Smith also said the ordinance might not be necessary, since the City Council would soon compile all its employee relations ordinance into its employee handbook and wipe them from city code.

Anderson rejected those ideas. He said the issue has been in the public dialogue for nearly two years, since the first ordinance was passed in 2013, and later voted down by city-wide referendum in 2014. And he said gay and lesbian employees deserve protection now.

"Councilman Henderson says this issue is controversial. I don't think it's controversial to say we shouldn't bully and harass people," Anderson said. "I'm confident this will pass. I'm confident the majority of the council will do the right thing."

To add to the disagreement, the city attorney's office first published a draft version of the ordinance online that was not formatted. The initial document appeared to set sexual orientation and gender identity apart from other protected categories, giving it exceptional protection.

Anderson said that was a mistake.

"My only goal is equal treatment under the law for all of those groups," he said.

As written, the ordinance would go into effect two weeks after final passage.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.

Upcoming Events