December 21, 2017
Atlanta's Kelvin Cochran knows all about fire -- but being fired? That was a whole new experience -- one Cochran hopes other Christians never face. The long-time chief of the city's Fire Rescue Department was forced out of the squad three years ago after a distinguished career that included an appointment by President Obama as the U.S. Fire Administrator.
It was a shocking display of anti-religious prejudice -- the kind that became all too common under the 44th president. Unfortunately for Cochran, Atlanta's Mayor Kasim Reed seemed intent on making an example of the African-American, who self-published a book -- with the permission of the mayor's office -- on biblical morality.
Obviously, Reed's message was that city employees have to check their beliefs -- and specifically, their religious beliefs -- at the door of public service. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where this persecution leads: to a country where no evidence of biblical morality will be tolerated. Christians who want to serve in a public capacity will have to go underground spiritually -- or steer clear of those careers altogether.
Fortunately, after a legal battle that's taken its share of twists and turns, the court sees this discrimination for the threat it is. Yesterday, Judge Leigh Martin May gave Chief Cochran and his attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) the affirmation they'd been waiting for: Mayor Reed's actions do not "pass constitutional muster."
"The government can't force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech," said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued before the court on behalf of Cochran last month. "In addition, as the court found, the city can't leave such decisions to the whims of government officials. This ruling benefits not only Chief Cochran, but also other employees who want to write books or speak about matters unrelated to work. Atlanta can no longer force them to get permission or deny them permission just because certain officials disagree with the views expressed."
Unfortunately, the ruling wasn't a complete win for Cochran. Judge May did reject his free speech and free association claims. As FRC's Travis Weber explains,
"Relying on an area of law governing the free speech rights of public employees, the court ruled that the city's interest in being able to run its operations as it wished -- free of 'discrimination' -- justified the restriction on Cochran... On top of this, the court allowed the city to claim the risk of disruption was higher because Obergefell was being decided at that time, but one's constitutional rights do not get sidelined just because of an ongoing debate. If anything, they should be especially protected at that time!"
For now, Cochran's case will continue, and we can celebrate that he was granted a few victories in this latest ruling. But the inability of the court to understand basic religious perspectives and the role they play in the lives of many well-meaning Christians who simply want to play a part in society is disappointing. While the two sides get ready for the next round of trials, we'll wait to see if the chief gets his job back and finally receives some compensation for all the trouble he's been through.
As he said, "It's still unthinkable to me that the very faith and patriotism that inspired my professional achievements and drove me to treat all people with love and equity is what the government ultimately used to bring my dream career to an end. All Americans are guaranteed the freedom of actually believing and thinking in such a way that does not cost them the consequences that I've experienced in this termination."
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.