A longstanding controversy involving Atlanta’s former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran has ended with both sides claiming victory. But because this is a case that many on the Christian Right have pointed to as an example of Christian persecution, it’s worth remembering what this case is really all about.
Nearly three years ago, Cochran was fired over a controversy involving his self-published 2013 book Who Told You That You Were Naked?. “Naked,” in this context, meant someone who didn’t have a relationship with God. Good Christians, on the other hand, were “clothed.”
The book included these passages:
“Uncleanness — whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, all other forms of sexual perversion.”
“Naked men refuse to give in, so they pursue sexual fulfillment through multiple partners, with the opposite sex, the same sex, and sex outside of marriage and many other vile, vulgar and inappropriate ways which defile their body-temple and dishonor God.”
So he compared homosexuality to pederasty and bestiality, and that alone should make everyone question his judgment. But that isn’t grounds for a firing. There are a lot of people with despicable beliefs in government — have you noticed? — but that doesn’t mean they can’t do their jobs.
Writing a book like that shouldn’t have affected Cochran’s job. It would have only been a problem if he foisted the book on the people who worked for him… and, wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what he did.
Cochran also raised constitutional concerns by proselytizing on the job. Public officials in leadership positions clearly do not have the right to force religious propaganda on their subordinates. Simply writing the book was not a problem; it became one when Cochran passed it out at work.
The American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, even admitted as much in an action alert sent out at the time:
Chief Cochran, a devoted Christian, wrote a short book, a portion of which conveys the biblical view of homosexuality. He gave copies of the book… to a few co-workers he knew to be strong Christians — but three city employees also received a copy without asking for one.
There you go. There was the problem.
If an atheist boss working for the government handed out The God Delusion to his subordinates, or a Muslim boss gave the staff copies of his interpretation of the Qur’an, we wouldn’t be having this discussion years later since that person would have lost his job on the spot.
Instead, the AFA acted like the city of Atlanta persecuted Cochran by suspended him for a month before later firing him.
A Christian brother is facing anti-Christian bigotry at its worst. The mayor and a councilman have shown their intolerance and hatred toward a person of faith, and have proved they are willing to take revenge against anyone who doesn’t embrace the pro-homosexual lifestyle.
That, of course, was another Christian lie. Cochran’s opinions weren’t the problem. Cochran pushing those opinions on his colleagues while on the clock was. (And, if it matters, Atlanta’s then-Mayor Kasim Reed was also a Christian… just one who understood how church/state separation worked.)
Here’s where things took a weird turn, though.
Why was Cochran fired?
Reed never said that Cochran acted on his beliefs by treating a gay person in a discriminatory way. Reed never cited the fact that Cochran handed the books to people who didn’t necessarily want them. Instead, for some strange reason, Reed said Cochran violated the city’s code of conduct by releasing the book in the first place (as if Cochran needed the government to green-light something he wrote in his free time) and then commenting publicly on his suspension.
Reed also said he fired Cochran because of the potential for discrimination down the line.
That’s where he stopped making sense. Releasing the book wasn’t and shouldn’t have been a problem, regardless of what Cochran said in it. Unless there’s reason to believe Cochran would do something like hesitate before putting out a fire in a gay couple’s home, he didn’t deserve to be punished for his thoughts, as abhorrent as they were. I don’t care if a teacher or police officer happen to be bigots as long as they treat everyone fairly while on the job.
So, on that count, you can understand why the Christian Right saw this as a big deal. They were right to complain about the reason he was fired, though they conveniently glossed over how Cochran clearly overstepped his bounds in proselytizing in the workplace and referring to himself as fire chief in the book (as opposed to just a private citizen).
That brings us to what happened yesterday.
U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May ruled that it was wrong for the city to fire Cochran for the reasons they did. The policies they enforced should never have been adopted in the first place.
But — and this is the more important part — May also made clear that the city didn’t discriminate against Cochran because of his Christian beliefs.
So both sides are claiming victory… even though the scale seems to tip in favor of the city since they dodged the more serious accusations. (Even Christianity Today revised its article on the topic multiple times after initially saying the court ruled in Cochran’s favor.)
“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech,” said [Alliance Defending Freedom] Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued the case on behalf of Cochran last month. “This ruling benefits not only Chief Cochran but also other employees who want to write books or speak about matters unrelated to work.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office also found victory in the ruling, which denied several motions from Cochran’s side.
“We are pleased that Judge Leigh Martin May ruled today that Mayor Reed acted lawfully and appropriately in terminating Mr. Cochran’s employment,” said Jenna Garland, spokesperson for Mayor Reed. “This lawsuit was never about religious beliefs or the First Amendment. Rather, it is an employment matter involving an executive in charge of more than 1,100 firefighters and tasked to lead by example.”
If you read ADF’s press release, however, you won’t find anything about how Cochran was not discriminated against. (Admitting that would probably hurt their fundraising efforts.)
That’s the real takeaway here. The city should absolutely get rid of any policy that has them watching over the shoulders for what their employees do or say in their spare time. They should only act if there’s reason to believe a Christian bigot, for example, is discriminating against an employee. But ideas alone shouldn’t be a cause for firing — and the judge made clear that’s not what happened.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)