Nondiscrimination ordinance with amendment passes first City Council vote

Opponents argue bill a moot point with upcoming new employee handbook

Chattanooga City Hall

Where a person's rights stop and another's freedoms begin was debated Tuesday at Chattanooga City Council before members unanimously voted to approve an ordinance to protect gay, lesbian and transgender city employees from harassment.

The ordinance, which has been hotly debated on both sides and has even created rifts between top Democratic leaders, passed with a new amendment that also protects employees' rights to their religious beliefs.

Councilman Chip Henderson said he introduced the amendment in response to Atlanta's firing of a fire chief earlier this year regarding a book he wrote, explaining that sex was between a man and a woman and anything else was a sin.

"This is the type of thing I'm trying to protect," Henderson told the council. "Any employee has the right to express their religious belief but at the same time, it's not to be used as a club to beat over somebody's head.

Councilman Moses Freeman disagreed and cast the only dissenting vote against the amendment.

photo Chattanooga City Council member Moses Freeman speaks as a committee discusses a proposed change in the city's sound ordinance Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, in Chattanooga.

"We don't want to give any religion the right to harass or defame or speak out against anyone or use vulgar language," Freeman said. "Their rights end, where the groups' rights we're trying to protect begins."

Yet even with the passage of the first vote on the ordinance, opponents argue the bill was a moot point.

In several weeks, the City Council will adopt a new employee handbook that addresses harassment and includes language that protects LGBT employees.

"This law is going to be superseded in 30 days," said Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West, who has spoken out against the ordinance. "What was the purpose of this ordinance?"

City Attorney Wade Hinton confirmed that the new employee handbook will replace the current code section that was voted on Tuesday, but there could be some exceptions, he said before walking away without explaining further.

Councilman Chris Anderson said he believes introducing the ordinance ahead of the new employee handbook was the right thing to do because it could take a while to adopt a new handbook. He said his hope is that any language added in the nondiscrimination ordinance will be adopted when it comes time to vote on the new handbook.

The city held a planning session for the new employee handbook Tuesday and another one is set for July 28.

Three weeks ago, Anderson reintroduced the nondiscrimination bill shortly after the Supreme Court ruled that states could not bar gay couples from marrying. A similar city ordinance was approved in 2013 that also extended health benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian city employees. But that bill was ultimately struck down during a city referendum last year.

On Tuesday, Anderson also pulled from the agenda a resolution that outlined new rules guiding how and when local tax revenue may be used to aid private developments. The bill came out of the controversy three years ago when tax increment financing for the Black Creek Mountain development provoked a lawsuit against the city bond board.

Anderson said he removed the legislation to give residents more time to comment.

A citizens watchdog group organized by Helen Burns Sharp, a former city planner who won a portion of a lawsuit against the city, raised multiple issues with the legislation and outlined changes that should be made to make the process more transparent and fiscally responsible to taxpayers. Anderson said the city attorney's office reviewed and adopted several changes based on concerns raised by Accountability for Taxpayer Money, or ATM.

The City Council will vote on the resolution Tuesday.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at [email protected] or 423-757-6659.