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Why Collegedale Voted to Give Family Benefits to Same-Sex Couples


On Monday, August 5, the City Commission of Collegedale, Tennessee, home of Southern Adventist University and arguably one of the most iconic and traditional of Seventh-day Adventist communities, passed Resolution 447 by a vote of 4 to 1, giving family benefits to same-sex couples. Collegedale became the first town in Tennessee to do this, garnering national attention in the process and also providing a possible a model for other towns seeking an alternate path in the face of the state’s strong constitutional prohibition on any form of acknowledgement of same-sex marriage.  Chattanooga just elected Tennessee’s first openly gay official to its City Council and the city says in the light of Collegedale’s vote, it is looking at its own city benefits policy.

Kat Cooper, city police officer of more than eight years, who married her long-term partner in Maryland this year, had applied for benefits twice before under domestic partnership terms.  This year, when she discussed her appeal with the city manager, she also brought it to the attention of the city commissioners who voted in June to have the city attorney draft a resolution so they could decide whether this was something they could approve.

Sources close to the city describe Kat Cooper as one of the most popular city employees and say that her wedding reception was attended by large numbers of her fellow police officers.  It appears that part of what encouraged city commissioners to move forward on this issue was that Kat and Krista Cooper were now legally married, even if that marriage is not recognized by the state of Tennessee.            

However, the first draft of the resolution drawn up last month by the city attorney appears to have run afoul of the state constitution, which prohibits any political or governmental entity from acknowledging any marriage that is illegal in Tennessee, even if it is legal in another state.  While the commissioners wanted to make sure that they were honoring permanent relationships and not simply any form of domestic partnership, they had to rework the resolution so that it would hold constitutional water. 

The new resolution carefully articulates the interest that the city has in supporting family relationships.  These family relationships do not necessarily require blood ties or legal status, but are defined to “include a collective body of persons who form one household and who have reciprocal, natural, or moral obligations to support and care for one another.” It is this interest in promoting mutual kindness within families that allows the city to carefully make its way through the emotional and constitutional thicket that is our nation’s current approach to marriage.

Kat Cooper speaks to the city commissioners

The resolution walks a very careful line:

“WHEREAS, respecting and recognizing that the law of Tennessee does not recognize same-sex marriages, but also recognizing the Commission’s desire to maintain the health, well-being and morale of the City’s employees and their families, regardless of the legal status of their marriage relationships and explicitly without conferring any legal status on the marriage of persons of the same sex, but further recognizing that such relationships are one practical and logical means of identifying the reciprocal, natural, or moral obligations to support and care for one another relationships which constitute a family. . . City employees who are legally married in any state that recognizes their marriage will be provided health insurance for their families.”

On Monday night itself, there was heavy media coverage and thick security.  Kat Cooper made a statement giving the history of her request and then residents were allowed to make comments.  Most who did so spoke out against the resolution, the most emotional (and quotable) being elderly long-term Collegedale residents. One very vocal Southern employee was Religion Professor Edwin Reynolds, who made his case in an open letter to the commissioners, arguing this vote would undermine biblical marriage and force many Collegedale residents to financially support something they consider to be immoral.  He appears to be the only current employee of Southern to give a formal public comment on the resolution.

Two protestors

Still, the historic vote passed with relatively little drama and only a small amount of local resistance, which begs the question:  How does one of the most traditional Adventist communities in the U.S. become a national trendsetter by bucking its state’s constitution and granting city benefits to an employee’s same-sex spouse?  Two of the four votes in favor of the resolution came from long-time Adventist residents of Collegedale, both of whom have been heads of departments and academic administrators at Southern Adventist University.  A third commissioner who voted “yes” is married to a current professor at Southern. Certainly, for people who live and work in Collegedale, the dominant emotion in town, on Southern’s campus or off of it, was the absence of outrage and a strong desire to live and let live. On closer inspection, the reasons this iconic Adventist town could become such a trendsetter might not be so very mysterious.

First, Collegedale has become a much more diverse place than it was 30 years ago, points out Dr. Katie Lamb, former associate vice president of Academic Administration at Southern and current City Commissioner of Collegedale.  According to Lamb, this vote wasn’t terribly controversial among Collegedale residents (most of the vocal opposition appears to have come from outside) and for those of us who work and live there, this seems to be because the town has become a place that is both home to and more accepting of a diverse population. 

Second, such a vote seems to have taken place mostly because Kat Cooper was such a loved and respected employee.  This wasn’t a decision made in the abstract.  It was made because a particular person, someone who was known and valued, was asking for equal treatment.  Commissioner Larry Hanson, former Southern mathematics professor and Southern administrator, said the gay community has had enough challenges and been wounded so often that there was no need to perpetuate an injustice for an employee who has been so faithful and whose family needs the health benefits.  Further, Hanson said he could find no way in which providing these benefits would harm the city or its residents.

Finally, almost all concerned referenced the idea that this vote demonstrates the traditional Adventist commitment to separation of church and state.  The church leaders who have been pressed to comment on the vote have consistently referred to the need to be careful about passing laws that are primarily rooted in religious/biblical ideology.  Such an enforcement of one tradition’s understanding of sexuality might eventually undercut Adventism’s longterm defense of separation of church and state.  One resident was overheard as saying that this vote might even be a temptation of the devil, to see how we handle our mandate to treat others as we want to be treated when we are in positions of power. 

After the vote

Hanson and Lamb have fielded many calls, emails, and sidewalk conversations.  While there have been some people who were fearful about the vote and expressed concern about redefining marriage, most of the response has been overwhelmingly positive regarding the extension of equal rights.  Lamb reports that she has heard from many alumni who see this as a chance to rethink their ideas about Southern and Collegedale.  Further, the vote explodes many stereotypes within the greater Chattanooga area about the narrowness and sectarian identity in Collegedale.

In the end, the commissioners said they realized many good people, including the Christians they attend church with and who are their friends, might disagree about how to handle the issue of same-sex marriage.  But for them, the vote was about treating all people with respect and dignity.  Dr. Lamb remembered her own experience when Southern decided to pay women the same salary as men, and said she thinks this is part of what made her feel strongly about equality in the workplace.  Both Hanson and Lamb see themselves as the commissioners of all Collegedale, not just Adventists, Christians, or straight people.   Dr. Larry Hanson emphasized that his decision was rooted in Micah 6:8.  Voting to provide health care benefits for Kat Cooper and her wife was part of the justice, mercy and humility that God calls his people to in this verse.

Read the Chattanooga Times Free Press article here.

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