August 3, 2014

By Hedy Weinberg

Last November, Chattanooga embraced fairness and equality by adding protections for sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the city's nondiscrimination ordinance and offering domestic partnership benefits to city employees.

Unfortunately, immediately following the passage of this measure, a local group petitioned against it, collecting enough signatures for the ordinance to appear on Thursday's ballot.

While the measure is labeled as the domestic partnership ordinance on the ballot, it is really about so much more.

It is about basic fairness for Chattanooga city employees. Studies show that about a third of lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans have experienced adverse treatment in the workplace because of their sexual orientation, and a shocking 90 percent of transgender Americans have endured work-related harassment or discrimination. People's ability to earn a living and support their families should be based on their job skills and performance. A person who works hard and does his or her job effectively should not be fired just because he or she is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Chattanooga's nondiscrimination ordinance will ensure that city employees are treated with basic human dignity and are evaluated fairly.

Government employees deserve assurance that they will be treated equally at work. The absence of such protection for Chattanooga's LGBT employees challenges our sense of fairness and sends the wrong message to those dedicated public servants. Public servants like Capt. Corliss Cooper, who recently made history when she became the first African-American female captain in the history of the Chattanooga Police Department after serving in law enforcement for decades.

Perhaps Capt. Cooper herself put it best when she said, "I put my life on the line every day for the citizens of Chattanooga. This ordinance ensures that my family will receive the same protections and benefits as every other officer in the department."

To date, about 490 other cities in the United States, including Memphis, Knoxville, Nashville, Collegedale and over 145 other cities in the South, have successfully implemented a nondiscrimination ordinance and/or provided domestic partner benefits, sending a message to city employees like Cooper that they deserve equal treatment and protection in the workplace.

Corporate America already has begun voluntarily implementing this type of protection - 91 percent of America's Fortune 500 companies provide explicit protections for employees on the basis of sexual orientation.

Indeed, many of Tennessee's top private employers have shown that they value inclusivity and see clear economic benefits to corporate nondiscrimination, including companies with a large presence in Chattanooga. Volkswagen, Unum Group, Mohawk Industries, SunTrust, Regions, Blue Cross BlueShield of Tennessee, Amazon and Wal-Mart all have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation and/or gender identity and/or offer domestic partner benefits.

Chattanooga has the opportunity to embrace a crucial community-defining moment and reaffirm its reputation as a forward-thinking and inclusive city where all city workers are protected from discrimination and treated fairly and equally.

Everyone will be watching to see what kind of city Chattanooga will be.

Hedy Weinberg is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

This op-ed appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on August 3rd, 2014.