If Atlanta Fire Chief’s termination isn’t a religious liberty case, then nothing is

The New York Times offers a lead editorial today supporting the termination of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. The editorial argues that Cochran’s Christian beliefs about homosexuality are “homophobic,” “virulent anti-gay views.” It denies that Cochran’s firing has anything to do with religious liberty, but only with Chief Cochran’s failure to get permission to publish the book, commenting on his suspension, and exposing the city to lawsuits.

But is this really accurate? Do the editors really believe that Chief Cochran’s primary error was failing to get permission to publish the book? Mayor Kasim Reed, who fired Chief Cochran, first commented on the book in November. He made it plain that his main problem was with the message of the book, not with how it came about. Mayor Reed writes:

I was surprised and disappointed to learn of this book on Friday. I profoundly disagree with and am deeply disturbed by the sentiments expressed in the paperback regarding the LGBT community. I will not tolerate discrimination of any kind within my administration…

I want to be clear that the material in Chief Cochran’s book is not representative of my personal beliefs, and is inconsistent with the Administration’s work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all of her citizens – regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race and religious beliefs.

These comments make it clear that the offense was primarily the Christian views expressed in the book, not how the book came about. The mayor states plainly that the Chief’s Christian convictions are incompatible with being Chief. In fact, the Mayor says that his Christian views amount to “discrimination” against the LGBT community. The Mayor’s comments are a matter of public record. How then can the “paper of record” fail to see the religious liberty question at stake?

The Times editorial also acknowledges the fact that the Mayor’s own investigation turned up no evidence of discrimination against LGBT people on the Chief’s part. The Chief treated all his employees fairly, regardless of their sexuality. Nevertheless, the editorial says something quite stunning:

It should not matter that the investigation found no evidence that Mr. Cochran had mistreated gays or lesbians. His position as a high-level public servant makes his remarks especially problematic, and requires that he be held to a different standard.

Did you get that? The editors at The New York Times think that it doesn’t matter that Chief Cochran treated all of his employees well. His views are so toxic that he has to be “held to a different standard”—apparently a standard that punishes city employees for their religious views.

The Times editorial is a case-study in missing the point. Chief Cochran’s book is not primarily about homosexuality. The offending remarks are only mentioned on a single page—a passing reference to what Christians have always believed about homosexuality. There’s no evidence the Chief shared his book to make a statement about homosexuality. Nor is there any evidence that he mistreated any of his employees. Nevertheless, the editors at The New York Times are treating him like Jim Crow.

Do we really want to treat Christians as if believing the Bible amounts to discrimination? Do we want to foster public institutions that prohibit convictional Christians from believing and expressing their views? If these issues aren’t religious liberty questions, then nothing is. The editors at the New York Times ought to be able to see that.

15 Responses to If Atlanta Fire Chief’s termination isn’t a religious liberty case, then nothing is

  1. Dan Kreider January 13, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    Absolutely stunning. I try to save such hyperbole until it’s really needed… and it’s needed here.

    This is unprecedented. If the mayor’s decision is not completely overturned, this is an historical moment in American religious liberty.

  2. Terry Galloway January 13, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

    Terry Galloway
    I hope and pray that he will have the courage to fight this. No freedom of speech and no freedom of religion.

  3. Brian Watson January 13, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

    “I will not tolerate discrimination of any kind within my administration…” says the man who is discriminating within his own administration. How do people not see the hypocrisy?

  4. Lauren Law January 13, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

    Isn’t it strange that in his own words the mayor says, “to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all of her citizens – regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race and religious beliefs” while FIRING an administrator for his RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.

    And for a newspaper…the bastion of FREE SPEECH…to tolerate such an action is incredible. Take away ONE RIGHT, you’d better prepare to lose all of them. That same newspaper will one day wish that someone would stand up for it when the government starts telling it what it can and cannot publish.

    Shocking that we’re here now…in this time and place in history! Astounding.

  5. Joseph Polk January 13, 2015 at 7:41 pm #

    Reed’s constant reference to the content of the book may open up an EEOC case for Cochran. Either way, the city of Atlanta will at least be paying Cochran a healthy sum at some point. I’m hoping there is no settlement as this really needs to be heard in federal court at some point.

  6. Barbara Jackson January 13, 2015 at 7:49 pm #

    I watched the video from today’s rally in Atlanta, before they marched peaceably ober to the mayor’s office to deliver some 40-50k signed petitions for his reinstatement. For a moment there, I thought I was looking at something out of the 1960s, but this was black and white, male and female (Dr. Martin Luther King’s neice spoke also), all standing together on the Word of Christ and calling for a sleeping church to stand, to work, and to pray. Boy I gotta tell ya, this is one day that makes this ole’ girl mighty proud to be a Georgia gal.

  7. Zach W. January 13, 2015 at 8:52 pm #

    Thank you for this. I saw the article in the NYT this morning and couldn’t believe what I read.

  8. Ryan Davidson January 13, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    Several points are probably worth noting…

    First, the book didn’t merely recite that Christianity opposes homosexuality. Rather, the book compared homosexuality to pedophilia, thereby implying that gay people are comparable to those who rape children. So, it stands to reason that gay employees of the Atlanta fire department may wonder whether they will be treated fairly by a chief who authors a book containing such unfair comparisons. Even so, the Chief’s book was published more than a year ago, and the city took no action against him.

    Second, the Chief was not fired for distributing the book to subordinates at their workplace on company time. He was merely suspended for 30 days. He was fired because he engaged in insubordination during his suspension.

    I share Denny’s desire to protect religious liberty. But this is no hill to die on. The Chief’s views hardly reflect anything resembling mainstream evangelical views about gay people. Or do we really believe that adults who engage in consensual gay sex should sit in prison for decades like child rapists? And, even if we believe that (which I hope that we don’t), do we somehow fail to see the impropriety of a boss distributing books promoting such views to his subordinates on company property and on company time? And, if we’re suspended for doing so, do we believe that Christians have free rein to engage in acts of insubordination during that suspension?

    I’m sorry. But I can’t defend this guy. In my view, he got exactly what he deserved and merits no defense. By defending such a guy, we only seem to prove that we are the bigots that we’re often accused of being.

  9. Johnny Mason January 13, 2015 at 10:36 pm #

    @Ryan – Homosexuality is listed with other sexual sins. The only equating is that they are sins. Homosexuality, pedophilia, adultery, sex outside of marriage are all sexual sins.

    Romans 1 lists gossiping with murder, so, according to Ryan’s logic, the Bible is therefore equating gossip with murder, and is thereby implying that gossip is comparable to murder. OH NOES!!

    • Barbara Jackson January 14, 2015 at 10:42 pm #

      Cowardice, too. “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” Revelation 21:8. Well, that’s pretty much everybody. That one drive me to much prayer, and He has been gracious to grow me in strength in the faith and in wisdom, though there is still quite a way to go yet. True grace never leaves us as it finds us.

      To maybe fine tune your point a bit, may I add that In the sermon on the mount, Jesus Himself actually does equate unrighteous anger with murder, and lust with adultery. Paul said if you are guilty of one point of the law, you are guilty for all of it, because covetousness (the tenth commandment) is idolatry (the first commandment). That’s because the root of sin is a sinful heart, and it corrupts everything. It is not merely an act. A person’s life is the result of what is in his or her heart, and that, Jesus says, is what defiles a person. Sin is sin, and it corrupts everything we are and do if left to ourselves. It may vary in degrees, but all sin is ultimately rebellion against a holy God. We want to go our own way and thumb our nose at the One who made us for His own glory. And ultimately, it shows that apart from sovereign mercy, we are all justly condemned.

      And yet, God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He who knew no sin became sin so.that in Him, we might become the righteousness of God. Pretty amazing stuff, that.

    • Christiane Smith January 15, 2015 at 12:31 am #

      Hi Johnny,
      I’ve been thinking about ‘the list’ and it occurred to me that of all the behaviors listed, the one that is criminal is the pedophilia. Now there are ‘consequences’ to adultery if a spouse finds out about it, yes. But that is handled in a family court. Pedophilia is a major crime in our country.

      For someone with same sex tendencies to be listed with pedophiliacs in the same category is likely for them a severe insult to their dignity as a human person. There are many people sitting in Churches today who are adulterers or who are living ‘in sin’ in a relationship with another without benefit of marriage,
      but pedophilia is one condition that is extremely harmful to its victims and I CAN see how placing these other labels in with ‘pedophilia’ could be upsetting, especially if someone’s boss made up this list and published it and began to hand it around, as was the case.

      I’ve tried to look at this from various angles. I think it was the inclusion of those ‘sex sins’ with the word ‘pedophilia’ that set off a fire storm. It was an infammatory thing to write, even though the Chief likely didn’t realize fully what he was implying by making that connection so closely.

      some thoughts

  10. Mitch Dean January 18, 2015 at 10:54 pm #

    First, I’d like to make sure we’re all clear about something, folks. The statements at issue are hardly so benign as something like “I follow the christian faith and I believe that homosexuality is sinful.” Rather he referred to homosexuality as a “perversion” and said, among other things, that homosexual acts are “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.” So, an honorable standard bearer for religious liberty, this “fine fellow” is not.

    Also, when you look at this, the real reason this guy got fired is that he was apparently too obtuse to know that, when you are a high-ranking public official, you need to choose your words carefully and that this is particularly true when those words express personal views of yours on a delicate subject like this. I obviously agree with the New York Times editorial’s position that canning him was justified as does the Atlanta Professional Firefighters Union http://iaff134.org/index.cfm?Section=1 However, I keep coming back to the practical consideration of Cochran’s sense of judgment. I have to believe there was a closed-door conversation (or several of them) somewhere in City Hall that went something like this: “Oh my gosh, if this guy is dumb enough to use words like perversion, vile, vulgar, bestiality and pedophilia when writing about this subject, who knows what other stunts he’s likely to pull and what the fallout from those will be?” If I were the Mayor, I’d have done the same thing which was essentially to get rid of a loose cannon.

    Finally, in his statement, I couldn’t help notice Cochran’s call for prayers for “my beloved little brother in Christ Mayor Kasim Reed.” I feel fairly safe in concluding that this type of condescension gives Cochran away for what he really is…a jerk who got what was coming to him.

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