Why a sacked fire chief could become the face of 'religious liberty' bills

After reporters had vanished from the anteroom on Tuesday afternoon, Kasim Reed opened the door to his private City Hall office and fired up his email account.

The mayor of Atlanta scrolled through the messages he has received over the last 30 days, demanding that he preserve the job of the highly decorated fire chief he had just fired. “Look at this. I’m an anti-Christ, I’m a Muslim,” a clearly angry Reed said.

For the record, the mayor is a lifelong Methodist.

Reed pulled up one brief email. The operative word was “perversion.” Then he returned to scrolling, moving the cursor down and down. “Look how long it runs. This is crazy,” he said. Dozens became scores became hundreds, perhaps even thousands.

On the surface, the firing of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, author of a self-published religious book that condemned homosexuality, was a hardcore personnel issue, albeit one that became intensely personal for the two men involved.

The mayor said his fire chief had failed to get the formal — and required — city approval necessary before publishing the book. More important, Reed told those gathered, a man who reported directly to the mayor had not discussed the contents of the book with his boss prior to publication.

“If you work in an organization, you check in with the person who writes your check. That did not happen here,” the mayor said. “I deeply resent the emails and phone calls to my wife, literally calling me an anti-Christ. And I don’t mean one time, or two times. This is what Chief Cochran brought to my door.”

The emails are worth talking about. In many respects, Atlanta is a separate country from Georgia. The sacking of one of its employees doesn’t usually generate much attention outside I-285.

But Cochran’s November suspension came just as supporters of “religious liberty” legislation – thought necessary to protect the faithful against government encroachment – began building a case for passage by the General Assembly, which convenes on Monday.

Last month, Cochran was brought before the executive committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention, the state’s largest denomination and a supporter of a religious liberty bill already on file in the House. Cochran was greeted as a hero, though his appearance, while a formal city investigation was underway, made him no new friends at City Hall.

The Georgia Baptist website has put audio excerpts of Cochran’s speech online, as well as a sales link to his book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” at Amazon.com. A Georgia Baptist online petition in support of Cochran now has 4,452 signatures.

Groups and personalities expert at deluging their targets with email jumped to Cochran’s side, including Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition and Redstate.com editor and WSB Radio host Erick Erickson.

All maintain that Cochran was being persecuted not for his failure to follow the rules, not for his performance on the job, but for the opinions he expressed – a position that the mayor of Atlanta vehemently disputes. “This chief was willing to give his life for anyone, regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation,” said Mike Griffin, lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Without casting any aspersions on anyone’s sincerity, there is a specific reason that Cochran makes an attractive poster child for religious liberty enthusiasts. He’s an African-American.

Think back to the 2004 debate in the state Capitol over the constitutional ban on gay marriage in Georgia. Religious conservatives won the day by cracking the stalwart opposition of the Legislative Black Caucus. Four of 39 African-American lawmakers in the House defected – a small sliver, but enough to give same-sex marriage opponents the two-thirds majority they needed in a final vote.

The question is whether attitudes toward gay marriage have changed enough in the last 11 years to make a repetition of the tactic unworkable.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, doesn’t always agree with Mayor Reed.

But so far, Fort is seeing no groundswell of rebellion. “It’s seen more as an employment issue than a religious freedom one,” said Fort, who is African-American. “I’m not hearing any talk from Democrats, whether black or white, saying that Kelvin Cochran was mistreated.”

Religious conservatives won’t be the only ones slinging the former Atlanta fire chief’s name around the state Capitol next week. Business interests will be lobbying heavily against religious liberty bills, fearing exposure to lawsuits generated by employees who might maintain that their religious beliefs trump company policy.

Perhaps refusing service to this person or that, for whatever reason.

In his Tuesday press conference, Mayor Reed spoke for those corporate opponents when he said that an additional reason for firing Cochran was that the fire chief had made the city vulnerable to lawsuits.

“I have a genuine concern as a lawyer about creating a prima facie case for discrimination claims against the city of Atlanta. Which goes to judgment. Because you are a commissioner who has a book on record,” Reed said. “If you’ve got a decent attorney, you have a pretty good shot at bringing a claim related to discrimination.”

So will Kasim Reed become the voice of opposition in the state Capitol? In one breath on Tuesday, the mayor said no. But in another, Reed said he’s entirely willing to match any future arguments Kelvin Cochran makes. “To the extent that he continues to talk, so will I,” the mayor said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.