Note: This story was last updated at 7:48 a.m. Jan. 13.
Proclamations by the Oak Ridge City Council are normally not controversial, but one that passed on Monday was. It was perceived by some as a controversial political statement that entered the abortion debate.
The proclamation recognizes Sunday, January 17, as Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. It says Tennessee residents “aspire to honor the dignity and worth of every person and to defend the sacredness of each human life.” Also, the proclamation says Tennessee residents care for “society’s weakest and most vulnerable, including the infirm, the elderly, and the unborn,” and no person shall be deprived of his life, liberty, or property.
The question of what rights to grant to the unborn or fetuses can be controversial because of the impact they might have on abortion rights. There is also considerable debate about when life begins.
Tim Stallings, executive director of Choices Resource Center in Oak Ridge, requested the City Council proclamation, and he did not think it weighed in on the political debate.
“It’s not just about the unborn,” Stallings said. “It’s about people with infirmities, the elderly.”
He said the day started with former President Ronald Reagan and has been recognized by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. Reagan established National Sanctity of Human Life Day on Sunday, January 22, 1984, the 11th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the still-controversial Supreme Court decision that granted women the right to an abortion in 1973.
Sanctity of Human Life Sunday is on the third Sunday in January, near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Smith said she thinks Reagan started the day 31 years ago for churches to pray to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“This item is a controversial political statement,” said Smith, who cast the only “no” vote against the proclamation in a 6-1 vote. “The mere fact that this is such a controversial item in the community…I’m disappointed that we’re even being asked to vote on it.”
Proclamations are typically “feel-good positions,” said Smith, who argued that the proclamation was outside the scope of the city, and City Council’s rules and procedures say controversial positions will not be supported by the City of Oak Ridge.
Proclamations can do things like recognize someone for an outstanding achievement or for years of community service. They are symbolic in nature and don’t have a practical impact.
In support of the Monday night proclamation, Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn said Council has also honored trees.
“I can think of no more positive thing that we can say as a Council than we value human life,” Baughn said. “Do we value the life of a tree over that of our fellow man?”
That was a theme echoed by Council member Rick Chinn, who said he saw no difference between the proclamation for Sanctity of Human Life Sunday and others for events such as Earth Day. He saw three emails opposed to the proclamation and received several calls in favor of it, Chinn said.
Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said the Council should be even-handed representing views across the city.
“This proclamation is drafted very narrowly,” he said. It’s the same as the one drafted by Haslam that met legal approval, and he doesn’t believe the proclamation violates any principles of church and state, or City Council rules, Gooch said.
Earlier, the mayor, like Stallings, said he didn’t see the proclamation as entering the political debate over abortion. Instead, he said, it was merely a request to acknowledge and recognize a day that is special to many people in the city.
Before the proclamation was approved, Council briefly debated whether to add it to the agenda.
Oak Ridge City Council member Charlie Hensley agreed with Smith that the proclamation, which was submitted by Baughn on behalf of Stallings, was a controversial political statement, and Hensley objected to the late addition, pointing out that Baughn has previously objected to late additions to Council agendas by other city officials.
In response, Baughn said that Council had never rejected a proclamation request.
Hensley, Smith, and City Council member Kelly Callison voted against adding the proclamation to the agenda. Once it was added, though, Hensley and Callison voted in favor of it, along with Baughn, Chinn, Gooch, and Council member Chuck Hope.
Stallings said Choices Resource Center, a nonprofit organization, is a pregnancy center in Grove Center that helps young females, in particular, with unplanned pregnancies, but also provides support and education, sex education advocacy in schools, pregnancy tests for females, and testing for sexually transmitted diseases for males and females.
See the proclamation here: Sanctity of Human Life Sunday Proclamation Jan 11 2016.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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