Chief Cochran firing: Anti-gay or anti-Christian?

Moderated by Rick Badie

“Who Told You That You Were Naked?” That’s the title of former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran’s self-published book, the one with comments some construed as anti-gay and that led to his dismissal by Mayor Kasim Reed. We continue dialog on the topic with two essays. One writer questions the reason given for the firing, while the other applauds the city’s response. The third column, about good Samaritans, acknowledges the gospel teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Chief’s rights violated

By Tim Head

There is a drama unfolding at Atlanta City Hall. A tragedy, really. You’ve seen it in smaller venues, but millions are watching now.

Mayor Kasim Reed’s termination of Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran will have many actors and many acts before the final curtain, but the most important players may never actually be on stage. I should be writing about Cochran’s violated First Amendment rights or about a proven family system that has served our species well for millennia. But the more I inspected our emerging drama, the more I found myself craning my neck to see the figure just behind the curtain.

In watching Reed’s press conference last week, I was struck by a subtle, but significant, motivator for him — that someone in the future might bring a claim of discrimination against the city based on religious viewpoints found in a few lines of a book Cochran self-published in 2013. Reed danced around this motivator but never named a quiet but powerful presence lurking just off stage.

Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, making various forms of discrimination in the workplace unlawful and creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce these protections. Since then, the EEOC has done what all government agencies do: grow. Its budget has exploded. Its jurisdiction has expanded into the cracks of everyday American life.

Cochran’s firing introduces us to one of these cracks: “Hostile work environment” harassment law. It’s all around you, even if you don’t know it. If you had a “winter break” instead of Christmas vacation, you can thank the EEOC. If you’ve stopped yourself before complimenting a member of the opposite gender on their outfit or haircut, the EEOC tips its hat to you.

And if you decided not to share a political opinion on social media because a co-worker votes differently, the EEOC has done its job. It is the editor of our daily conversations, and it is becoming the thought police. If it were to have a line to deliver in our play downtown, it would be simple: “Be tolerant, be quiet or be gone.”

Nobody wants a hostile work environment. But the EEOC no longer just takes discrimination cases that have already happened. It now makes sure nothing happens that could create a potential environment for future discrimination. The eye of the EEOC begins in the workplace but moves to personal social media postings, sermons in the pulpit, my writing of this piece, and a fire chief’s self-published book.

The EEOC has no legal jurisdiction until someone brings a claim. So how does a mayor terminate a fire chief without a single allegation of discrimination in an exceptionally decorated 30-year career? Because someone might bring a discrimination claim in the future. And to borrow from another recently revived drama, tomorrow is only a day away.

Herein lies the EEOC’s ultimate power. In its intentional vagueness, the EEOC can expand and contract as it desires. So it need only cast its shadow in City Hall to remind the mayor that if a single person in the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department were to read Cochran’s book and then claim discrimination, it could cost the city millions.

So leaders can either choose personal liberty or play defense and abruptly “separate” from rogue religious speakers like Cochran. The only way for an employer to be sure is to disallow all controversial speech. At that point, tolerance has dealt a mortal blow to liberty.

We all have witnessed this drama I call, “The Tyranny of the Tolerant.” A fuller peek behind the curtain will reveal others beside the EEOC. But that’s for another day.

Tim Head is executive director of the Duluth-based Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Georgia Equality thanks Reed

By Jeff Graham

We all have the absolute right to believe whatever we want about God, faith and religion. We have the right to act on our beliefs, unless those actions harm others.

Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran’s harmful and extreme comments about women, Jewish people and gay and transgender people — which he distributed at work — hurt all employees by creating a hostile work environment for those who do not share his views. No hardworking employees should live in fear of losing their jobs or being treated unfairly because they do not share the religious beliefs of their boss.

That is why Georgia Equality would like to thank Mayor Kasim Reed for his decision to terminate the employment of Cochran. While the termination of the fire chief was ultimately the result of his failure to abide by city protocol in publishing and distributing his book, Reed was diligent in determining the facts and impact of Cochran’s mixing of his personal religious beliefs with his role as leader of the Atlanta Fire Department. We are grateful for the mayor’s commitment to Atlanta’s nondiscrimination policy.To be sure, Cochran’s views had an impact on the work environment of a department dedicated to saving the lives and property of citizens of Atlanta. The official report states clearly that: “There was a consistent sentiment among the witnesses that firefighters throughout the organization are appalled by the sentiments expressed in the book. There also is general agreement the contents of the book have eroded trust and have compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.”

It is precisely the damage done to morale that led the Atlanta Firefighter’s Union to issue their statement in support of the mayor’s actions: “Atlanta Professional Firefighters Local 134 would like to commend Mayor Reed and his administration for their decision to terminate Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. Local 134 supports LGBT rights and equality among all employees. Atlanta Professional Firefighters believe we should take this opportunity work with the City Council and the Reed administration to improve LGBT rights by adding an LGBT liaison for the Fire Department. We look forward to working with the City Council and mayor and hope to provide any assistance they need going forward.”

Atlantans, just like citizens of any other Georgia municipality, depend on first responders who are able to focus on their jobs without the fear they may be judged not on their performance, but on who they are.

We hope members of the General Assembly look at this situation with a careful eye when they consider the need for a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act. If one existed in Georgia, Cochran could use it to claim that his religion gives him the right to ignore laws.

Unlike our constitutional protections for freedom of religion, this proposed new law would put an individual’s religious beliefs ahead of the common good. It would allow individuals to claim that any number of laws don’t apply to them. A hotel owner who objects to cohabitation outside of marriage could refuse to provide a room to an unmarried couple. A landlord who believes a man should be head of a household could refuse to rent an apartment to a single mother. A homeless shelter that receives government funding to provide social services could refuse shelter to a gay couple by saying it goes against its religious beliefs.

We do not want a broad, ill-defined law that could allow some people to use one set of religious beliefs to hurt or discriminate against others. If this challenging situation with Cochran reminds us of anything, it’s that one of our most important values is treating others the way we want to be treated. Creating new laws that go against that principle hurts us all.

Jeff Graham is executive director of Georgia Equality, an advocacy organization for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

King lived Samaritan’s life

By Andy Daniell

In his Gospel, Luke retells a conversation between Jesus and a man who was trying to justify his racial prejudice.

“A lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.’ But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

Jesus indirectly answered the man’s question by telling what is today called, “The Parable Of The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30-37). It is a story about a man of one race helping a man of another after those of his own race had refused to give assistance.

Jesus carefully chose the racial identities and roles of those in his story to make his point. Those characters were more meaningful then than now. The rewrite below uses modern identities within the story’s framework to teach the same lesson.

A white man was attacked and robbed by two white men who caused him great physical harm and took his possessions. Another Caucasian who ran a charity in town assisting drug addicts went by, but realizing the injured man did not have a drug problem, went on his way. A white politician came upon the injured man, but knowing he could not cast a vote for him because he lived in another district, passed by the man, too.

Finally, an older black gentleman came upon him. The black man had lived through times when he did not enjoy equal rights, and this had caused him many difficulties and hardships. The black man knew, however, that Jesus required him to forgive others if he wanted to be forgiven himself. The black man stopped and helped even though it took a considerable amount of his own time and money.The lawyer was asked to summarize the lesson of the story. He replied, “The lesson is we can choose to focus on differences, or we can choose to focus on what is common between us. And always, we must stand ready to forgive; not letting things of the past or superficial distinctions put boundaries between us and our fellow man.”

The biblical parable of the Good Samaritan wasn’t told to teach that we should do nice things for others. It is a story that uses an example of doing something nice for another to teach that we should not be racially biased. We should all love others as we love ourselves.

God first gave this lesson of forgiveness and seeking common ground to Moses in the Old Testament. Jesus reminded us of this lesson with his parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — a preacher of the Gospel — lived a life that taught us this lesson again in the modern age. I am thankful to all of them for this guidance.

Andy Daniell, president of an Atlanta-based analytical consulting firm, is minister at the First Christian Church of Mableton.