The Buncombe County Commissioners approved a “Policy of Domestic Partnership Benefit Coverage.” The approval followed the adoption of a “Respectful Workplace Policy.” The latter received unanimous support, but the former was adopted with a 4-3 vote split along party lines.
All commissioners who spoke found nothing wrong with diversity and inclusiveness. Holly Jones explained the policy was on a par with the anti-bullying policies schools are adopting. It spoke against offensive and disrespectful “remarks, gestures, material, and behavior.” In addition to refraining from belittling, embarrassing, and otherwise negative treatment of coworkers; county employees are now required to “name and address” such behaviors when they occur, provided the reports are neither frivolous nor vindictive. Supervisors are now required to “promote awareness” about the policy. Offenders will be subject to discipline up to and including dismissal.
The unanimous approval was insufficient for some. There had been a push to specify sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. Republicans on the board spoke against that. It was a policy to ensure equality, and singling out would have been a step in the opposite direction. One speaker faulted the commissioners for adopting the diversity and inclusion policy in the abstract but not being able to handle its practical application by extending benefits to the committed, but unwed, partners of county employees. Another predicted the hype of the domestic partnership issue would overshadow the justice of the workplace tolerance policy.
At the beginning of the meeting, Commissioner Joe Belcher attempted to postpone consideration. Information was not in from rivals, the commissioners had not yet had their retreat to set priorities for county funding. He pointed out later that a couple of schools are in desperate need of replacement. Some people feel as passionately about the safety and welfare of children as others do about gay pride, but unless the commissioners wanted to raise taxes in this tough economy, choices had to be made.
Commissioner Mike Fryar asked if anybody had tried to get an estimate of the cost of implementing the benefits program. He asked how much was currently being set aside, but was treated as if the question came somewhere from outer space. The work of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee was to promote equality at any cost. A motion to postpone consideration was seconded but defeated, once again along party lines.
Of course the commission chambers were full of citizens wishing to speak for and against domestic partner benefits. The verbal comments could easily be pigeonholed into one of two slots. Those in favor of the benefits said it was not just for two people doing the same job not to receive the same benefits. Those against argued it was not just for one person entering into a covenant of bondage to promote a civil society to be treated the same as those who do not make similar sacrifices. Reading between the lines, the arguments fell either in the category of promoting “gay rights” or reverencing God’s word.
Lauren Mason was among the first to speak. She said the issue was not about religion, it was not about political parties; it was about a “basic human right.” Mason was but one who read fear and hatred in the words of opponents. That put opponents on the defensive, leading many to begin their comments with disclaimers. The disclaimers were then rebuffed as grounds to discredit anything that followed.
At issue was the fair treatment of all people, but some staunch advocates for embracing diversity began rumbling when one minister quoted some bad numbers about the election returns for Amendment One. The ballot referendum defined marriage between one man and one woman as the only civil union the state would recognize. Chair David Gantt gaveled down the peanut gallery, saying everybody was to have a chance to speak. “If you don’t respect it, you’re going to get out of here.” A few citizens expressed concerns that the policy would expose the county to lawsuits in light of the constitutional amendment. Others said the amendment was the reason they had to seek other routes for procuring the same benefits as those in legally-sanctioned relationships.
Activist Kathy Rhodarmer saw the policy as an attempt to collect special taxpayer benefits for a special class while demanding acceptance of a behavior that ran against the conscience of many. A number of speakers expressed their strong wishes that their noses not be pulled into other peoples’ bedrooms; but by the same token, they did not wish their hard-earned money to be used to support what went on behind closed doors. Rhodarmer discounted the attempt to elevate domestic partner benefits to the same level as the Civil Rights Movement. The Rev. Damita Jo Wilder said she was a black female, and well aware of what it felt like to be on the receiving end of bigoted abuse. Although she was an advocate for justice and fairness, her congregants did not have the money to support a tax increase to fund the matter at hand.
Cody Sturgill, who pastors Boiling Springs Baptist Church, was not sucked into the fray. He spoke of the family as something glorious, ordained and instituted by God. Families provided wonderful havens for the rearing of children. Marriage was a bond of commitment; those who accepted were in it for the good times and the bad. They deserved the reward of extended employee benefits for assuming the responsibility of providing food and shelter for children, teaching them right from wrong, and keeping them from harm’s way until they reach a level of maturity. Sturgill described a plan to degrade all that was good about families, and said the policy before the commissioners was but another step on that path.
Sturgill did not take a negative tack and argue that the happy, nurturing environments in God’s plan were preferable to modern society’s hip and cool culture where kids occur from one-night stands and grow up with a confused sense of belonging. With only one parent, many rely on the government for food and shelter, and if the single parent works, many learn their values and morals from the kids on the street after school. If taxpayers don’t pay for enough public school programs to keep these kids from “falling through the cracks,” they’ll pay for public safety calls for service and judicial system costs later on.
Bucking stereotypes of the wholesomeness of traditional families and the sorrows of broken homes was the Rev. Kathryn Cartledge. Cartledge and her partner Elizabeth Eve made headlines a couple years ago when they were arrested for requesting a marriage license and refusing to leave the courthouse as part of the Campaign for Southern Equality’s We Do initiative. In response to a rhetorical question about where the children of gay couples are now, she said one of her kids is a physician, and the other is an educator of thirteen years. They are good citizens who pay taxes and have blessed Cartledge with four adorable grandchildren.
Another minister, Andrew Sluder, said he saw past labels. When he looked into the audience, he saw the Lord’s message that the field was ripe and ready for harvest. Souls were in need of rescue. Sluder said we’re all sinners, and he didn’t count the sin of practicing homosexuality any different from that of getting drunk. God’s work is to refine and purify his people, but arguments in favor of the policy had falsely branded opponents as conflating the sin with the sinner.
The Rev. Philip Wilson of Brown’s Chapel Baptist Church in Weaverville said the Bible, which is the Word of God, provides historical evidence of what happens to societies that willfully rebel against the Creator. He wasn’t going to let the god of political correctness silence his fears of his God’s wrath. This ran afoul with LGBT Christians who said Jesus would love everybody. Nobody mentioned that Jesus performed miracles like turning water to wine, twice feeding multitudes with loaves and fishes, and paying the tax man with a coin found inside a fish. Neither the commissioners nor their broke constituents claimed these powers to help them pay for the benefits, the cost of which a couple of ministers argued would skyrocket with consequences of high-risk lifestyle choices associated with the LGBT community.
Wilson described “domestic partnerships” as the new phrase for what mountain folk used to refer to as “shacking out.” The adopted policy defined the phrase as, “a committed relationship between two individuals of the same or opposite sex who are legally competent and at least eighteen (18) years of age, who live together in a long term relationship of indefinite duration, who are not legally married to each other or to anyone else, or in the case of same sex couples, are legally prohibited from marrying each other in the State of North Carolina or have an out of state marriage not recognized by the State of North Carolina, and are jointly responsible for each other’s common welfare and financial obligations.”
In addition, the policy required persons seeking domestic partnership benefits to sign a “Domestic Partnership Agreement.” To save interested parties hardships from legal fees, the county would make available a template. The agreement, which is to be notarized, affirms that all property in the relationship is to be shared equally among partners and split 50-50 should the partnership dissolve. In the event of a failed relationship, parties would not be able to enter into another domestic partner agreement for twelve months.
Commissioners David King, Joe Belcher, and Mike Fryar stated they were supporting their constituents in voting against the policy. Their arguments ran primarily along financial lines. Fryar told of an elderly gentleman whose wife went into the hospital and needed to set up a payment plan for his property taxes so he could keep his house. Belcher told of a man on a fixed income spending a quarter of his Social Security checks on property taxes.
Those in favor, however, celebrated the economic boon the decision would bring. Holly Jones said the policy would “attract the best and the brightest” to the Buncombe County workforce. She had spoken to constituents who argued the policy would be a “life changer” for them. Gantt said there was never a wrong time to make a right decision and called the question.