Beginning Jan. 1, same-sex, in addition to opposite-sex couples, may file for insurance benefits in Knoxville.
Mayor Madeline Rogero made an administrative decision to expand employee benefits to include domestic partnerships Oct. 16.
In a statement made via email, Rogero explained what this city-wide change will entail.
"The expansion of employee benefits to same or opposite-sex domestic partners allows city of Knoxville employees in committed domestic relationships to extend medical, dental, vision and dependent life benefits to their domestic partners," Rogero wrote.
The expected annual cost is about $60,000 from the city's $13 million benefits budget.
Although the city of Knoxville has adopted these measures, UT has not. As of now, benefits are not extended to UT employees in domestic partnerships.
In 2012, the UT Faculty Senate submitted the Faculty Resolution on Support for Benefit Equality.
In a Jan. 10 letter in response to this resolution, Chancellors Jimmy Cheek and Larry Arrington cited the Tennessee Constitution and the state's current definition of "marriage."
"The university does not have authority to extend coverage provided by the state group insurance plan or to establish a separate insurance plan for university employees," Cheek wrote.
Knoxville is the second city in Tennessee to provide employee benefits to individuals in domestic partnerships, trailing the town of Collegedale by two months.
The change in Collegedale resulted largely from the efforts of Kat Cooper, a respected Collegedale detective. Cooper married her partner, Krista, in Maryland and did not receive marriage-related benefits when she returned to Tennessee.
On Aug. 5, Collegedale City Council members voted 4-1 to approve the extension of health benefits to same-sex couples.
"In Collegedale, it wasn't a political decision," said Alex Green, a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press who covered the Collegedale story. "It wasn't, 'I'm a Republican commissioner so I vote this way,' or, 'I'm a Democrat so I vote this way.' It came down to the way we were treating Kat Cooper."
Although the advantages of Rogero's decision has received much attention, these benefits apply to opposite-sex domestic partners as well. An affidavit showing their commitment must be signed by both parties in order to qualify as domestic partners.
Rogero expressed hope that the decision will positively affect the community.
"I think it is a strong signal to our employees and to the community as a whole that we believe in treating all people equally and fairly," Rogero wrote. "I think that is a positive message to convey to anyone looking to live here, move here or start a business here."
Brandon Chrisman, a junior and president of College Republicans, disagrees with Rogero's decision in a legal sense.
"Employee benefits should be given to couples that are married," Chrisman said. "Legally recognized unions should be the only way that an employee's benefits should extend to their partner. Otherwise, you could argue that it would be circumventing the law."
Rogero maintains that her personal views of marriage equality were irrelevant in making her decision.
"I believe in marriage," Rogero wrote. "My husband and I have been married for 12 years. I also have publicly stated that I support marriage equality for all people. But this expansion of benefits is unrelated to that issue. It is open to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. This is the direction that employers across the country have moved."
Sixty-two percent of Fortune 500 companies currently offer partner benefits, Rogero claimed, citing a 2013 Human Rights Campaign study.
Although employees began filing for benefits on Oct. 23, during the city's annual enrollment period, the benefits will not take effect until Jan.1, 2014.
Despite this victory for advocates, Chris Sanders, chairman of the Tennessee Equality Project in Middle Tennessee, named several issues facing the state. These issues include allowing transgender individuals to change their sex designation on birth certificates, bullying in schools, employment discrimination and benefits for state employees.
The ultimate goal for organizations like TEP is complete marriage equality in Tennessee, Sanders said. This movement, he noted, must begin on a local level.
"Until we get marriage equality, we should work for things like partner benefits in our local government that can help people until that time," Sanders said. "Partner benefits can make a huge difference financially in people's lives and in terms of their health and their family's health, so we think it's worth pursuing.
"Partner benefits aren't perfect, they aren't marriage, but they are a way to protect real people who need it right now."