Nondiscrimination ordinance opens rift between two of Chattanooga's top Democrats

Staff photo by Tim Barber Marcus Ellsworth, left, and Charlie Wysong wait their turn on July 1 to speak their opinions to the Chattanooga City Council concerning the upcoming nondiscrimination ordinance.

Vote forecast

Not all Chattanooga City Council members will say how they will vote on the nondiscrimination ordinance. However a 2013 vote on the previous same-sex benefits and nondiscrimination ordinance could be a guide. Chris Anderson - wrote both ordinances, supports both ordinances. Carol Berz - approved 2013 ordinance, but declined to comment on her vote before the legislation was finalized. Moses Freeman - approved 2013 ordinance, co-sponsored and supports current bill. Russell Gilbert - voted against 2013 ordinance, did not return phone calls Wednesday on new vote. Larry Grohn - voted down 2013 ordinance and supported its repeal, is against new ordinance. Yusuf Hakeem - supported same-sex benefits ordinance, did not return a phone call Wednesday. Chip Henderson - opposed 2013 ordinance, is against current ordinance as written. Jerry Mitchell - supported 2013 bill, did not return a phone call Wednesday. Ken Smith - opposed 2013 ordinance, did not return a phone call Wednesday.

Debate over a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance for gay, lesbian and transsexual Chattanooga employees is splitting more than the City Council.

Longtime Democratic allies are feuding over the proposed ordinance, too.

The issue is up for a first vote next week and, so far, Republicans on the council, mainly Chip Henderson and Larry Grohn, have voiced the greatest concern over its passage.

But since his opinion piece was published in Monday's Times Free Press, former local Democratic Party Chairman Stuart James is getting blasted by ordinance supporters, including Councilman Chris Anderson. James represented Anderson when a group of conservatives and neighbors attempted to recall him from his City Council post last year.

In the column, James said Anderson, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Councilman Moses Freeman, should slow down and exercise "political patience."

The comments touched off a social media storm.

Anderson, responding to a post by another resident, questioned James' courage and intentions.

"Why do the courageous thing when you can just co-opt someone else's basic rights to get attention for yourself? Sad and pathetic," Anderson posted.

James responded with a post defending his opinion, and he wrote to the City Council saying council members should ask key questions about the ordinance.

In a phone interview Wednesday, James said he wholeheartedly supports legislation to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) city employees, but he wants the legal language to be bulletproof.

He's not stalling, he's thinking strategically, he said: If the ordinance is hastily passed and not fully vetted for legal holes, it could be harried by legal challenges from the right.

"I think that we need to not discriminate against people who are LGBTQ but I am against the political move right now, giving the right that is against the [Supreme Court] opinion and against the LGBTQ community based on religious beliefs an opportunity to challenge it legally," James said.

Anderson declined to comment on James' remarks Wednesday.

"His actions and private comments to me this week have me exploring a potential ethics violation with the state bar [association]," Anderson said.

James said he would respond to any complaint, and said it would be unfounded.

Local Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lee said the party is largely pleased with the ordinance, although some in the party want a more measured approach.

"I think the party's main concern is that we get it right the first time," Lee said. "It seems to me like the restroom issue has been the main point. That could be solved pretty easily."

Ordinance opponents have questioned whether transgender employees would be forced to use restrooms of their birth sex or their gender identity.

Henderson and Grohn have both asked that "gender identity or expression" be removed from the ordinance and that language protecting religious freedom be included.


The discussion continues in the council, but Hamilton County has already included sexual orientation as a protected status in its employee handbook.

And while gender identity isn't explicitly singled out, the county's policy broadly prohibits discrimination due to "nonmerit-based factors."

There is no discussion of restroom policies in the county handbook, but the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has already weighed in.

OSHA says employers should let gender identity, not biological sex, determine restroom use.

"A person who identifies as a man should be permitted to use men's restrooms, and a person who identifies as a woman should be permitted to use women's restrooms. The employee should determine the most appropriate and safest option for him- or herself," according to a 2015 OSHA brochure on best practices.

And local companies have added protections for transgender employees, as well.

Two of the biggest employers - Volkswagen and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee - contradicted Henderson's statement at a planning meeting Tuesday that their employees have no protection for gender identity or expression.

Scott Wilson, VW's head of communication, and Mary Danielson, director of corporate communications for BCBS, both said sexual orientation and gender identity are protected categories in the companies' employment and anti-discrimination or harassment policies.

Henderson said Wednesday his information consisted of what the council's analyst found on the company's websites.

"What he gave me was possibly all he could find online. If I misspoke, I don't have a problem making amends," Henderson said. "I certainly was not trying to mislead anybody."

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