Atlanta Fire Chief Becomes Lightning Rod In Debate Over Religious Liberty

Atlanta’s recently terminated fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, took center stage Tuesday in a rally for religious freedom at the state Capitol. Cochran says he was fired for expressing his religious beliefs.

“I believe and know in my heart that my termination was unjust,” said Cochran before hundreds of supporters packed in the Capitol rotunda.

The rally took place as lawmakers prepare to debate a bill that supporters say protects religious expression and critics decry as discriminatory.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fired Cochran last week. Reed said the reason was that Cochran didn’t get prior approval from his office before self-publishing a book about his religious beliefs that included derogatory views about homosexuality. Reed said it was about judgment, not religion.  

Cochran, however, doesn’t buy it. At the rally, he said he was fired for, “having the audacity to believe that sex was created for procreation and should be in the bonds of holy matrimony between a man and a woman.”

Cochran stressed there remains no evidence his religious beliefs created a hostile work environment, nor evidence he discriminated against any city employee who identifies as lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual.

A long list of national, state and local religious leaders spoke on behalf of Cochran. Many of them blasted Mayor Reed and said they wouldn’t be pushed around. 

Bishop Wellington Boone, based in Norcross, said Reed had “awoken a sleeping giant.”

Tony Perkins, the president of the Washington D.C.-based Family Research Council, compared Cochran’s firing to the recent terrorist act against the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris, saying both were aimed at silencing individual expression.

“Whether a journalist in France satirically writing about religion or a fire chief in Atlanta, Georgia writing about the sacred teachings of his faith, the silencing of either is a threat to the freedoms of all,” said Perkins.   

Bishop Paul Morton of Decatur said Cochran’s removal was a call to action.

“We cannot allow this country, we cannot allow Atlanta to become a communist country,” said Morton. “The devil is slick y’all. The devil is slick. If they can stop us from talking about the Bible, then the next step is they’ll take our Bible. And if they take our Bible, and hear you still talking about the Bible then they’ll try to penalize us. But I’m here to tell you, oh no, we’re not going out this way.”   

After the rally, a group of Cochran’s supporters hand-delivered nearly 50,000 signed petitions – most from the Family Research Council and the Georgia Baptist Convention ─ to Mayor Reed’s office. The petitions call for Reed to apologize and Cochran to be restored as fire chief.

In the coming days, lawmakers are expected to begin debate on a bill that supporters say would protect government employees from being fired for their religious beliefs.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, did not attend the rally. Speaking earlier in the day, Teasley said he wasn’t familiar with the “technical points” of Cochran’s case, but added it appeared he was fired due to his religious views. Teasley said Reed’s stated reason that it only had to do with judgment “doesn’t comport with logic.”

“If the chief had written a book about fishing I don’t think there would be this issue now,” said Teasley.

To critics who fear the bill will lead to discrimination against the LGBT community, Teasley said that’s not his intention at all.

“Other states have these laws. It’s never been used that way. There’s been no history of it and so why would we think it would be used that way now?” said Teasley.

Business leaders and LGBT advocates are already mobilizing to stop the bill.

Hours before the faith rally in support of Cochran, bill opponents held a press conference to lay out their concerns.

Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said Teasley’s bill is “wrong-headed and unnecessary.”

“Whenever you see legislation cropping up in state after state like this it’s an effort to create an impression that there’s a public demand for this bill, which is false,” said Orrock.

She acknowledged Cochran’s growing role in the debate.

“We’ve seen it over and over again where you create a firestorm in order to push a policy and a lot of mythology is promoted…you create false martyrs.”

Melissa Mullinax, a senior advisor to Mayor Reed, attended the press conference but did not participate. After it concluded, Mullinax handed out to reporters a recent New York Times editorial backing Reed’s decision to remove Cochran.

“We would agree with the characterization of Kelvin Cochran as a false martyr being used to advance the political agenda of the far right,” said Mullinax.