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The Chattanooga Equality March heads down 10th street. Chattanooga's LGBT community held a rally and march starting at the City Council Building on 10th street and ending at the Riverbend Festival site on June 11, 2017.

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Chattanoogans hold local LGBT Equality March

A group of Chattanoogans marched Sunday in solidarity with other LGBT Equality March participants in cities nationwide.

About 150 people gathered in front of the Chattanooga City Council building before marching through downtown to the Tennessee Aquarium plaza.

Activists, many wearing red T-shirts and others in LGBT pride-themed outfits, carried posters with messages such as "No hate in our state" and "A city of quality demands equality," as they marched down Broad Street, chanting, "What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!"

March organizer Samantha Boucher said the group wants the city council to extend a 2015 ordinance protecting city employees from discrimination to all citizens of Chattanooga.

"Federal courts have decided that sexual orientation and gender identity are included in sex discrimination, but local and state laws haven't caught up with that yet," Boucher said. "We want Chattanooga to innovate and lead the charge in making that happen."

The nationwide equality event, with a central march in Washington, D.C., aimed to "peacefully and clearly address concerns about the current political landscapes and how it is contributing to the persecution and discrimination of LGBTQ+ individuals," according to the march's website.

Boucher said even if local leaders are willing to expand protections for LGBT people they may face opposition from state leadership. A 2011 state law restricts local governments from passing any anti-discrimination measures that "deviate from, modify, supplement, add to, change, or vary in any manner from" the state's definition of discriminatory practices.

The bill also states that these restrictions do not apply to employees of local government, which is how Chattanooga's ordinance can protect city employees.

Just last month, activists gathered in protest of another bill signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam. HB 1111 applies "natural and ordinary meaning" to any undefined words in Tennessee state laws. LGBT rights activists say the bill may allow local judges to deny same-sex couples the right to marry or receive marriage benefits, since state law defines marriage as a "relationship of one man and one woman," and "shall be the only legally recognized marital contract in this state in order to provide the unique and exclusive rights and privileges to marriage."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke spoke at the rally before the march and encouraged activists to not limit themselves to local politics.

"[Your activism] has to be in places where you're not welcomed," he said. "When these issues come up, the galleries need to be filled, the halls need to be filled. People need to hear the voices of those who are affected. We have to make progress in the halls of Nashville as well."

Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher also spoke, saying the department is committed to protecting everyone's rights, dignity and safety.

"We stand behind you. We stand beside you. And should anybody threaten you because of who you love, we will stand between you and that violence," he said.

The Rev. Brandon Gilvin, of First Christian Church in Chattanooga, said it is important for the church to acknowledge that LGBT people have always been a part of the religious community.

"There have been a lot of things that have happened over the last several years that have made the church a more open, inclusive community," he said. "It's important to note that it's not a new fad. LGBTQ people have been part of the church, but they haven't always been able to be who they are."

At the aquarium, a few marchers stayed to meet with people arriving for the Riverbend Festival, though Paul Johnson, holding a Bible, spoke to some of the activists.

Johnson said he did not know there would be an LGBT rights march. He said he comes to Chattanooga every year from Paint Rock, Tenn., about 80 miles away, to bring the word of God to the crowds gathered at Riverbend.

"I'm here to deliver the gospel so people can believe in Jesus Christ and his righteousness," said Johnson. "You must believe and have faith in the shed blood of Jesus and trust in his righteousness to get you to heaven."

Boucher said, "It doesn't seem like we're on opposite sides of the fence."

Johnson said his message is for all mankind, not just a specific group.

"We've all come short of the glory of God," he said. "It's between you and God whether you're born again or not."

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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