Travis Weber is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Christian Post on January 9, 2015.
At a press conference held on Tuesday this week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fired Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief Kelvin Cochran. How did we get here?
One year ago, Chief Cochran wrote a book discussing orthodox Christianity, including a mention of how God views homosexual practice. The book had been around for a year, with no problems. Yet when Atlanta's secret thought police secretly uncovered the not-so-secret book several months ago, a hullabaloo erupted and the chief was suspended. All the usual suspects contributed to a hearty round of hand-wringing and head-shaking.
Mayor Reed was "deeply disturbed" and indignantly proclaimed he would not tolerate such discrimination within his administration.
Unless that discrimination is against Christians, of course.
Perhaps the mayor should take up his "deep" disturbance with God. Chief Cochran was only referencing the Bible; he didn't invent the ideas he expressed.
The mayor's office then opened an investigation because "there are a number of passages" in Chief Cochran's book "that directly conflict with the city's nondiscrimination policies."
Well, who knew? The views one expresses in one's own writings have to now conform to official city policies.
If this wasn't bad enough, the chief has now been fired—in essence, for his views. In a press conference held yesterday announcing the termination, the mayor claimed:
Chief Cochran's "actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse workforce. Every single employee under the Fire Chief's command deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions. His actions and his statements during the investigation and his suspension have eroded my confidence in his ability to convey that message."
"I want to make my position and the city of Atlanta's position crystal clear," Reed continued. "The city's nondiscrimination policy . . . really unequivocally states that we will not discriminate." Thus, according the mayor, any individual who violates that policy or "creates an environment where that is a concern" will not continue his or her employment with the city government.
The only problem is: there is no evidence here of any discrimination whatsoever! There never has been.
In essence, the chief was fired by the mayor and his allies because (if they were honest) they "think he might discriminate against gay people." Never mind there is zero evidence of any such discrimination. Simply put, no one can point to any adverse action Chief Cochran has ever taken against someone based on their homosexuality! If they could, we certainly would have heard about it, given the frenzied fears of "potential" future discrimination and a "possible" hostile work environment. But because that's all the mayor and his allies have to go on, all we've heard about is the "possibility" of future discrimination.
This is a clear case of someone being eliminated from their position because of their views alone. This is even worse than other recent cases of disapproval of orthodox Christian views among public figures in the United States. Without exaggeration, we can say we have just seen the government monitoring personal expression for approval or disapproval, backed up by power of law.
But if he's going to bury Chief Cochran, Mayor Reed needs all the ammunition he can get. So he scrambles, and tacks on another "justification": "Chief Cochran also failed to notify me, as Mayor and Chief Executive of the City of Atlanta and his employer, of his plans to publish the book and its inflammatory content. This demonstrates an irreconcilable lapse in judgment."
However, Chief Cochran plausibly describes how he not only notified the mayor of his plans to publish the book, but provided him in January 2014 with a pre-publication copy for his review, which the mayor told him he planned on reading during an upcoming trip.
Reed didn't even stop there. He claimed Chief Cochran published his book in violation of standards of conduct which require approval from the Ethics Officer and the Board of Ethics.
Never mind that, as Cochran reports, not only did the director of Atlanta's ethics office give him permission to write the book, but he was also given permission to mention in his biography that he was the city's fire chief.
Well, which is the problem, Mayor Reed? The "nondiscrimination" issue. Or the ethics issue? On the latter, the chief and mayor offer contradicting testimony. On the former, the mayor doesn't even offer any evidence whatsoever!
These developments are likely to cause widespread anger among Christians, but they should alarm anyone concerned about freedom of expression—regardless of their views.
At his press conference, the mayor was in vehement and repeated denial that Chief Cochran was fired for his religious beliefs. The mayor would have us believe that "[t]his is about judgment" and "not about religious freedom" or "free speech." According to the mayor, "[j]udgment is the basis of the problem." But Mayor Reed knows he is wrong, which is why he is so defensive about there being no "religious persecution"—he clearly knows it is taking place.
In addition, the mayor was accompanied by Alex Wan—the city's lone gay council member—at the press conference. If the issue is about ethics, why have the lone gay council member flanking you as you make the announcement? For that matter, why not have an ethics officer?
Indeed, the issue is about orthodox Christian views. And if it's about "judgment" on the expression of such views, we are in a brave new world indeed.
Chief Cochran must vigorously stand for his rights. All who care about the right to free expression without government intrusion and interference should stand with him, even if they disagree with him in this instance. For when the law fails to protect one, it will soon fail to protect all.
At this moment, we must remember the wisdom of Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who was an outspoken opponent of Hitler and ultimately was confined to a concentration camp:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
NOTE: Stand with Chief Cochran by signing our petition supporting him.