Gay Rights a Go in Chattanooga

If you want further evidence that the politics of civil rights in the United States are changing, check out the news from Chattanooga, Tenn., this week, where the city council just approved full benefits for city employees in domestic partnerships, including same-sex relationships. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports:

With a 5-3 vote, Chattanooga became the third city in Tennessee to expand employees’ benefits to their partners, both gay and straight. The bill will go into effect immediately and employees will be able to sign up for the benefits by next Spring.

This news from Chattanooga is especially striking a few reasons.

First, the city has come very far, very fast. Chattanooga does lean Democrat, in no small part because it’s 35% African-American. But as anyone familiar with Southern politics can tell you, a city of Southern Democrats is not necessarily a city of social liberals. And, in light of perceptions about a lack of African-American support for gay rights, that should be especially true of support for gay rights in Chattanooga. 

I grew up in Chattanooga, leaving for college in 2008. As a kid, I didn’t know a single adult who was out—although I certainly knew plenty of people who were, to varying degrees, in the closet.

As recently as 2006, Chattanooga voters overwhelmingly supported an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as strictly between a man and a woman (only two of the city’s precincts posted a majority against the amendment).

Now Chattanooga has Tennessee’s first openly gay city council member, and some kind of official recognition of same-sex relationships. Again, it’s worth noting that some of the earliest, strongest support for the measure came from two of the City Council’s three black members.

The other striking element here is that, at least explicitly, religion has played such a small role in the opposition to the measure. At least among City Council members, the main scriptural invocation has been in support of extending benefits. Here’s how council member Moses Freeman explained his yes vote:

[The Bible] says, “Love the Lord as thyself.” And the second part of that verse is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” That’s how I made up my mind about this vote tonight.

Meanwhile, opposition to the measure has almost entirely been couched in terms that are either fiscal (can we afford to extend more benefits?) or legal (does this violate the state constitution?). In an area where topics like school prayer remain contentious, the avoidance of religion seems almost studious. Even the Tennessee Family Action Council, in a screed that evokes the Civil War, Obamacare, and the specter of “homosexual activists,” doesn’t mention religion at all.

And, finally, Chattanooga isn’t even the first municipality in southeast Tennessee to extend benefits to same-sex couples. Collegedale, home of Southern Adventist University and a center of Seventh-Day Adventist life in the South, did so earlier this year by a 4-1 council vote.

In Chattanooga, the issue isn’t quite settled. Among other ugliness, a Tea Party leader claims that he’ll get enough signatures to force a referendum, and the measure may be overturned. Still, it’s always valuable to be reminded that, while the Bible Belt may appear as a solid red bloc come election season, the region’s blend of faith and politics can be less predictable, and sometimes more progressive, than it first appears.