City of Chattanooga Health Benefits for Domestic Partners Referendum (August 2014)

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A City of Chattanooga Health Benefits for Domestic Partners Referendum was on the August 7, 2014 election ballot for voters in the city of Chattanooga in Hamilton County, Tennessee, where it was decisively defeated.

This measure was a veto referendum targeting an ordinance - Ordinance No. 12781 - passed by the city council in Chattanooga, the fourth largest city in Tennessee, that would have allowed health benefits to be given to any domestic partner of a city employee. The ordinance also had certain provisions that, according to proponents, were designed to protect against work place discrimination with regard to transgender employees, bathroom use and general workplace discrimination. Immediately on the approval of this ordinance, a group called Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency (CGAT) began collecting signatures to put this ordinance to a vote of the people in an effort to repeal it. The activists were successful in their petition effort, giving the city council members a chance to either repeal the ordinance themselves or put it before voters in a referendum measure. Through inaction, the council chose the latter option. Although the ordinance was designed to apply equally to the domestic partners of straight workers and gay workers alike, the debate over the ordinance approved by the city council was charged with all of the contention and activism surrounding the gay rights issue.[1]

Similar ordinances were approved in Knoxville and Collegedale, Tennessee. These city laws were not targeted by referendum efforts.[2]

The ballot language of this referendum was written so that a "yes" vote approved the ordinance, supporting the city council's decision, and a "no" vote rejected the ordinance, which was the desired outcome of the victorious referendum petitioners.[3]

Election results

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This ballot measure article has preliminary election results. Certified election results will be added as soon as they are made available by the state or county election office. The following totals are as of 100 percent of precincts reporting.

Ordinance 12781
Defeatedd No13,68562.58%
Yes 8,184 37.42%
Election result from Hamilton County Elections Office

"Chattanooga domestic partnership ordinance rejected by voters," August 8, 2014


Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West expressed the hope that the city council members and the mayor would honor the referendum results and refrain from trying to find a way around the voter's rejection of the measure. He said, “What we want them to take away from this is that the people have spoken."[4]

Those who were in favor of Ordinance 12781, although disappointed by the outcome of the election results, said that the referendum had the positive result of bringing together like-minded people. Spencer White, a director for the pro-ordinance Yes Chattanooga campaign, said, “Our campaign for fairness and equality brought together churches, dozens of faith leaders, businesses from around this city and this state."[4]

The Human Rights Campaign pledged to continue working towards benefits for domestic partners. The organization’s deputy field director Jeremy Pittman said, "Despite this hurtful and disappointing result tonight, we know that fair-minded Chattanoogans and people across Tennessee are ready to keep fighting until full equality reaches every corner of the state and every corner of this country. As LGBT equality moves forward across this country, this work isn’t over until every American can expect the same decent treatment under the law.”[5]

Text of measure

The question on the ballot:[3]

Shall the city of Chattanooga's 'domestic partnership' ordinance (Ordinance No. 12781) be adopted?

• For the ordinance providing for the extension of benefits in domestic partnerships and adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the city's nondiscrimination policy.

• Against the ordinance providing for the extension of benefits in domestic partnerships and adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the city's nondiscrimination policy.[6]


Pro-ordinance logo
Note: Those who supported the city domestic partner benefits ordinance and were urging city electors to vote in favor of it in August are referred to as "supporters" in this article.


Proponents of the ordinance launched a campaign in support of the city-approved ordinance, urging voters to uphold it in August with a "yes" vote. The campaign was called "Yes Chattanooga."[2]

Some supporters of the ordinance saw it as a way to create fairness for homosexual partners in the city workplace, making the referendum attempt targeting the ordinance an attack on homosexuals.[7]

City Councilman Chris Anderson proposed the ordinance targeted by the referendum.[7]

Arguments in favor

Supporters said that this measure was simply an anti-discrimination measure that allowed equality for all, including same-sex couples to whom marriage licences were not issued in the state of Tennessee at the time of this election.[7]

Same-sex couples and supporters gathered on July 7, 2014, to advocate for the ordinance, pledging to spend their own time in the campaign for the ordinance. City Councilman Moses Freeman addressed the crowd, saying, "I've been knocking on doors. My message is to go forward. Prove to the world that we are a fair people and we welcome all people to our community." City Councilman Chris Anderson, who proposed the ordinance, spoke to the crowd about equality, entreating, "Don't we want to be known as a city for fairness and equality for all? Will you help make Chattanooga a better place for everyone?"[7]


Anti-ordinance logo
Note: Those who were opposed to the city domestic partner benefits ordinance and urged city electors to vote against it in August are referred to as "opponents" in this article.


The group called Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency (CGAT) ran the referendum effort against the city's domestic partner benefits ordinance.[8]

CGAT also ran a campaign against the ordinance called "It's Your Vote, Chattanooga."[9]

Some members of CGAT were also members of the local Tea Party group.[2][7]

Arguments against

Those opposed to the city's ordinance argued that marriage is an important value that should be rewarded and that giving benefits to unmarried couples dismisses the value of marriage. Defending their petition drive, they also argued that the city should vote on the issue because the ordinance was passed in a close city council vote, with five councilors voting in favor and four against, which meant only one vote made the decision for the entire community.[9]

The "It's Your Vote, Chattanooga" website listed the following reasons to vote against the city ordinance:[9]

  • The city wants to fund full married benefits for unmarried partners.
  • The ordinance, approved by City Council, dismisses marital status as a requirement for healthcare benefits.
  • This is an American value that should be preserved.
  • The poor decision of 5 people creates added expense for taxpayers.[6]

—CGAT members campaigning against the city's ordinance[9]

The CGAT website listed the following statement in its FAQ on the referendum in response to this question:

"Why shouldn't the girlfriend or boyfriend of a city employee have the same healthcare benefits as any another employee's wife or husband?"[10]

A girlfriend is not the same as a wife. A boyfriend is not the same as a husband. If you don't believe it, just ask the girlfriend of the husband who has a wife. Marriage confers legal responsibilities. Girlfriends and boyfriends have no legal responsibilities. The ordinance, approved by City Council, dismisses marital status as a requirement for healthcare benefits and rewards those who have made no legal commitment with healthcare benefits. If city employees are married, their spouses should all receive healthcare benefits. This is equality. Granting the "live-in" girlfriend or boyfriend of a city employee the same benefits as a married spouse is reverse discrimination against the person who accepted responsibility and married. Equal Benefits should be reserved for people bearing equal, legally binding responsibilities. It is an American value that should be preserved.[6]

—CGAT members[10]



CGAT, "Forum: Domestic Partner Benefits - Good or Bad for Chattanooga?" November 15, 2013

A lawsuit over the ballot language for this question was filed by the city of Chattanooga. The Hamilton County Elections office decided the question on the ballot would be the same text that was submitted by referendum petitioners. The city protested, arguing in court that the city charter dictates that the city attorney should be the one to craft the ballot language, ensuring it is as fair and informative to the voters as possible. The county attorneys merely argued that the relevant elections law backed up the decision by the county election commission to accept the submitted ballot language. Hamilton County Election Commission Attorney Chris Clem said, "We look at who gets to draft the question, not who gets to draft the better question."[7]

Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge W. Neil Thomas III ruled on July 7, 2014, that the county was correct and that the referendum sponsors were allowed to write the ballot language, provided they wrote it in accordance with state law.[7]

Even though the ballots were printed immediately after Judge Thomas' decision, containing the ballot language drafted by the referendum petitioners, the city immediately appealed the decision. City Attorney Wade Hinton, in a prepared statement concerning the appeal, said, "It is important our residents have convenient access to the most information available to assist them in voting on a city issue." Chattanooga police Lt. Corliss Cooper also disagreed with the judge's ruling. Cooper said, simply, "That question, it's going to mislead people."[7]

CGAT leader Mark West, who was also president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, expressed resentment towards the city's lawsuit and said that it was a waste of time. He stated that his group was careful to follow the law exactly and that they wrote a fair ballot question. West said, "We followed [election officials'] direction specifically so we wouldn't end up in court and yet here we were, or are. But we're thankful that Judge Thomas read the law and followed the law."[7]

Path to the ballot

See also: Laws governing local ballot measures in Tennessee

Petition drive

In 2013, the Chattanooga City Council voted five against four to approve Ordinance 12781, granting benefits, previously only available to married couples, to the domestic partners of city employees. In two weeks, the group called Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency collected 7,755 signatures in a referendum petition to stop the enactment of the ordinance. CGAT activists needed only 4,500 valid signatures. Once the referendum petition was certified, the city council had the option of rescinding the targeted ordinance or putting it before voters. Through inaction, the city council chose that latter option.[8]

Council vote

The Chattanooga City Council approved Ordinance 12781 in a 5-4 vote. The council members that voted in favor of the ordinance were:[10]

  • Carol Berz
  • Jerry Mitchell
  • Chris Anderson
  • Yusef Hakeem
  • Moses Freeman 

The council members that voted against the ordinance were:[10]

  • Chip Henderson
  •  Larry Grohn
  • Russell Gilbert
  • Ken Smith

See also

External links

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