by Adventist Today News Team
Updates appended August 12 and 14
Collegedale became the first city in Tennessee to approve benefits for same-sex spouses of government employees in a 4-to-1 vote last night (August 5). Two city commissioners—Katie Lamb and Larry Hanson—are Seventh-day Adventists, and both voted in favor of extending benefits. Despite Collegedale's small population of roughly 9,000 residents, the decision was covered widely in the region's media, including the Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Chattanoogan, WDEF (the CBS television affiliate in Chattanooga), and WRCB (the NBC television affiliate in Chattanooga).
Leading up to the vote, the Chattanooga Times Free Press noted that Collegedale seems “like an unlikely spot for such a revolutionary and controversial policy to emerge” because the area “developed as a primarily Adventist community around the nucleus of Southern Adventist University," a major Seventh-day Adventist institution with an enrollment of roughly 2,800 students.
Both Hanson and Lamb reflected on their political philosophies in the Chattanooga newspaper article. Lamb shares, “I don’t see it as a religious issue at all. I see it as a constitutional right that the Supreme Court has just brought down. I see it as treating all of our employees the same. And I try to keep those issues of government and church separate.” According to her Collegedale city web page, before retirement Lamb worked at Southern Adventist University (SAU) as dean of the School of Nursing, associate vice president for academics, and dean of graduate studies.
Taking a somewhat different approach, Hanson relies on biblical teaching to guide him through controversial issues such as this; however, the verse he attempts to honor (Micah 6:8) speaks to broad values rather than specific policies or issues. “What the Lord wants you to be is just, merciful, and humble. That’s my goal,” Hanson explains. “Why penalize someone when they’re born a certain way? … These people suffer enough, just give them a break.” From 1966 to 1999 Hanson taught mathematics at SAU and also chairing the mathematics department for many years, according to the city's website.
Hanson reports how various factions view the controversial issue. “We have a very conservative element in the church, and we have a very liberal element in the church, and it runs the gamut here. We have some people who think this is turning Collegedale into Sodom and Gomorrah. Others tell me, ‘Hey, you’re a city commissioner. You’re not representing the Adventist church in that job. You have to do what’s in the best interest for the city, not for your beliefs as an Adventist.’”
In contrast to both Hanson and Lamb, Edwin Reynolds strongly opposes the measure. Reynolds is a professor of New Testament studies and biblical languages at SAU. The Times Free Press reports that Reynolds wrote an open letter to the commissioners expressing his views, saying, “Voting to give homosexuals financial benefits like normal married couples and families at the expense of taxpayers like me who believe it is morally wrong is not defending the moral position.” After publication of this story, Reynolds clarified with Adventist Today that this comment was inaccurately reported, saying it was from a private communication, not an open letter (see comment below for further explanation). He continues, “If you like the homosexual employee, you have a right to be kind and helpful to her, but not at the expense of those who do not want to see the law legitimizing such relationships.” Reynolds sees the extension of benefits as “legitimizing the homosexual relationship as equivalent to a marital relationship of husband and wife,” warning commissioners they “will have to answer to God for that, not to me or other taxpayers.”
Wolf Jedamski, a church administrator and pastor of global mission at the 3,000-member Collegedale Adventist Church, provided a pastoral perspective in the newspaper story. Jedamski stated, “Some members see this as a homosexual issue or a marriage issue. The church sees this as a city issue, and we are not going to get involved in it.” Speaking to changes within the community, Jedamski added, “It’s not really true anymore that the city of Collegedale is a city of Seventh-day Adventists. It’s grown much more diverse, and that’s a good thing.”
The issue of benefits for same-sex partners has been an on-going concern since 2006 when Collegedale Police Department detective Kat Cooper first made a request, reports The Chattanoogan. That 2006 request for family health coverage and another in 2009 were both denied; however, a subsequent request last fall eventually led to Monday's affirmative vote. Given the legal situation—the Tennessee Constitution defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and Cooper and her spouse, Krista, were married in Maryland, where same-sex marriage has been legal since January 1, 2013—city attorney Sam Elliott explained that the City of Collegedale cannot legally recognize the marriage. However, Elliott told WRCB Channel 3 that the city can “recognize that a family relationship exist." WRCB also reported that in order to receive benefits, city employees must have a valid marriage certificate from a state that recognizes same-sex marriages.
Addendum on August 12
Reynolds has informed Adventist Today that he, not Hanson, provided a copy of his originally-private letter to the press. Reynolds clarified his original statements, saying:
"I am disappointed that you did not check your sources better before publishing the article on Collegedale’s vote. I was quoted out of context there, and you simply perpetuated the quotation to the entire Adventist community. The quoted statements from me were not from an open letter to all of the commissioners, from which nothing was quoted, but from a private letter to Larry Hansen after he responded to my open letter with his own response to the homosexuality issue, in which he expressed his personal views that homosexuals were born that way, so God should not hold them morally responsible for their behavior, and that he had met the lesbian policewoman who was requesting the benefits and she was a nice person, so he saw no problem giving her benefits. I was writing to him as a Seventh-day Adventist to remind him that we all are born in sin and have aberrant behaviors, but God still holds us morally accountable for turning away from sin and seeking His grace for overcoming power. He cannot just take his personal views and insist that everyone else pay the price for the sins that one person elects to engage in when the law of the state of Tennessee is that marriage is between a man and a woman. He should be there to uphold state law as well as, as a Christian, feeling a personal responsibility to uphold the moral law as taught in the Bible. The litigant wants to change the law to make others pay for the health benefits to her partner, who is not recognized by the state of Tennessee as a marital spouse, but the citizens of Collegedale have to pay $10,000 a year for her to receive spousal benefits. That is not a legitimate decision on the part of the commissioners, because as the city attorney stated, it is not in harmony with state law, and it is not a moral decision because it is out of harmony with the moral teaching of God’s word. By taking my statements out of context, I am made to look like a homophobic bigot, which I am not."
Addendum on August 14
Orlan Johnson, director of public affairs and religious liberty (PARL) for the denomination's North American Division, stated that the while the Adventist Church will "continue to make clear to the public where we stand," referencing the official statement on homosexuality voted a number of years ago, "I don't think we as a church are interested in singling out anyone and not showing them love. Society is always evolving and looking for way to take in consideration new views. At the end of the day for Adventists it's about being intentionally kind and Christ-like. I think you can have a difference of opinion as it relates to our fundamental beliefs and other beliefs."