Gov. Bill Haslam and state House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick explained last week, in a stunning bit of reasoning, why Tennessee is not likely to become the 20th state to offer benefits for the same-sex partners of government employees.
The white male heterosexuals — two of the most powerful Republicans in one of the nation's reddest states — told the Chattanooga Times Free-Press, with no apparent irony, that most Tennesseans are not demanding such a change. McCormick added, "I haven't even had folks mention it to me, to tell the truth."
Since we're telling the truth, history confirms that the majority tends to be initially ambivalent about the plight of the minority. (Although a recent Vanderbilt poll suggests there might be broader support for domestic partner benefits than the GOP leadership says.) And while we have no reason to doubt that McCormick's social circle is made up of lovely people, it's no shock to hear that LGBT rights are not the hot topic when they gather.
With this feedback loop operating at full power at the state level, it was left to Collegedale, Tenn. — a small suburb of Chattanooga rooted in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church — to boldly go where no other city in the state had gone before. City commissioners there have approved benefits for the domestic partners of public employees, gay and straight alike. That has elevated the issue in Chattanooga — where the city's first openly gay council member is pushing the issue, and Mayor Andy Berke has expressed a willingness to consider it — and Knoxville, where Mayor Madeline Rogero has been giving out positive vibes on the matter as well.
Add Nashville to that list.
Three Metro Council members tell the Scene they have been involved in ongoing conversations about how to proceed with an effort to establish benefits for the domestic partners of city employees here. East Nashville Councilman Peter Westerholm — the new chairman of the council's Personnel-Public Information-Human Relations-Housing Committee, which would handle benefits-related legislation — says the effort still has a long way to go.
"I think there are a number of folks who are also interested in seeing Nashville move forward with that," says Westerholm, who served as a board member and policy director for the Tennessee Equality Project before being elected to the council in 2011. "But at this point there's nothing definitive, there's not anything that's filed right now, so it's at the early stages still."
Chris Sanders, TEP's executive director, says the group has been studying what other cities have done to make sure potential legislation in Nashville would be in line, both legally and logistically, with other successful efforts.
He pre-empts several common objections. On the matter of cost, he says that in other jurisdictions the expansion of benefits typically costs 1 to 2 percent of the benefits budget. Though it may be hard to believe, he says with a laugh, "not all of us are in relationships." Other employees, he says, may have a partner who already has insurance.
What about the potential for fraud? Same-sex couples are no more inclined than straight couples to commit it, he says, and he cites a Vanderbilt policy that requires couples to meet a long list of criteria to be counted as partners, including signing an affidavit.
Sanders says he is often met with pessimism from supporters who assume conservative state leaders will squash any such effort — a scenario Nashvillians are familiar with, after the state nullified a Metro non-discrimination ordinance in 2011. But Sanders views this as a win-win, ultimately. A legal fight on domestic partner benefits could set the stage for a challenge to the state's definition of marriage.
"If they don't push back, we win because the benefits stay in place," he says. "And if they do push back against it, and they're successful temporarily, ultimately they could end up undoing the marriage amendment that they so love. So I'm not worried about that."
There are several hurdles to clear before all that, and it appears that council members may need executive assistance to get over the first one. A legal opinion issued in 2005 under then-Metro Law Director Karl Dean suggests that now-Mayor Karl Dean would have to support the effort on the front end, if it is to go anywhere at all. That opinion states that "in order to amend the system of benefits, a Study and Formulating Committee" must be appointed by the mayor, approved by the council and convened to review the matter. The committee must be convened by the mayor every five years, according to the Metro Charter; the last one was held in 2011.
Metro's current law director, Saul Solomon, tells the Scene his department is looking at "relevant charter, ordinance and other legal provisions and are studying the issue in general" as well as considering whether the 2005 opinion would be applicable to the partner benefits issue.
Asked whether the mayor would support the idea, and whether he would move to appoint a study committee on the issue if it's deemed necessary, Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson offers a cautious but not discouraging statement.
"Mayor Dean is proud that we live in an open, welcoming city that respects individual dignity and embraces the differences among us," Johnson says. "Many major corporations already offer domestic partner benefits, and they certainly recognize that offering a competitive level of benefits attracts employees and is a smart way to do business. Metro Human Resources and the Metro Law Department are currently studying the issue."
And so, lacking the certainty of time, progress tiptoes on.