Rally for Kelvin Cochran boosts Georgia's religious-liberty bill

An overflow crowd fills the Capitol Rotunda as fired Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran addresses supporters Tuesday. AJC Photo / Ben Gray

An overflow crowd fills the Capitol Rotunda as fired Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran addresses supporters Tuesday. AJC Photo / Ben Gray

The rally for fired Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran , which drew hundreds to the state Capitol Tuesday, was and wasn't about Georgia's proposed religious-liberty bill .

It wasn’t, because any legal action Cochran might pursue probably wouldn’t hinge on the kind of law that would be covered by the bill.

It was, because members of the racially and politically diverse crowd sense Cochran’s firing is but one more piece of evidence religious liberty is fraying at the edges.

"If they can stop us from talking about the Bible," pastor Paul Morton said at Tuesday's rally, "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."

Cochran’s firing has been likened to threats against the film “The Interview” and terrorists’ massacre of journalists at the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. But Morton also made a more relevant comparison:

“People say we’re standing with Michael Brown, we’re standing with Eric Garner,” he said. “I think it’s time to stand for God.”

An analogy to those black men killed last year by police officers -- and to the protest movements that grew out of grand jury decisions not to indict the officers -- could, if it sticks, turn up pressure on legislators to act on House Bill 29 . The bill would require courts to use the "strict scrutiny" standard for religious objections to generally applicable state and local laws.

Support for Cochran among the Georgia Baptist Convention, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Family Research Council suggests it may stick. Mayor Kasim Reed's insistence Cochran was fired for his "judgment," not his views, is no more likely to dampen their enthusiasm than Brown's supporters were swayed by witnesses who denied there was a "hands up, don't shoot" moment during the confrontation in Ferguson.

(An important aside: No matter why Cochran was fired, those who viciously attacked Reed by email or phone, especially if they did so in the name of Christ, should be ashamed of themselves.)

Nor are the bill’s supporters likely to be persuaded by its critics. They will not be turned by the claim legalized discrimination looms, when decades of experience with the law’s precepts have wrought no such results.

They will not buy the claim such a bill would be bad for business when the language of HB 29 already applies to governments in 28 states, many of which are thriving, and to the federal government nationwide. No serious person can believe Mercedes-Benz USA would have moved its headquarters to Charlotte, Dallas or Raleigh instead of Atlanta, for example, if their states didn’t have such a law and Georgia did.

They might ask themselves why, if the bill poses such a menace to Georgia, its critics aren’t also lobbying Congress to repeal the federal version of it.

In short, they are likely to see the reasons for supporting the bill have more durability than the reasons for opposing it.