Ex-Atlanta fire chief has starring role at ‘religious liberty’ hearing

‘Religious liberty’

Readers can find more than two years of coverage by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about “religious liberty” legislation at the state and federal levels at myAJC.com.

An ousted Atlanta fire chief and Obama administration appointee who has since become the poster boy of the right’s “religious liberty” offensive was front and center at a Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday.

Kelvin Cochran was the GOP’s star witness in a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, during which he urged lawmakers to pass the First Amendment Defense Act, federal religious liberty legislation known as FADA.

Cochran said the bill would protect federal employees from being fired for their beliefs, which he alleges is what the city of Atlanta did to him after he published a book that described homosexuality as a perversion akin to bestiality.

FADA “would ensure that no federal employee who expresses their belief about marriage on their own time would face discrimination by the government and face the punishments that I have endured,” Cochran told the committee.

Cochran in his testimony recounted his life story, describing how he rose from an impoverished childhood in Shreveport, La., to become Atlanta’s fire chief and President Barack Obama’s appointee for U.S. fire administrator in 2009.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed terminated Cochran in January 2015, more than a year after the then-chief penned a 162-page Christian guide for men titled “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” Cochran distributed the book to some members of the Fire Department.

Cochran, asked multiple times by Republican committee members to recount the events leading to his ouster, said he was wrongfully discriminated against by the city for expressing his Christian beliefs and that he did nothing wrong. He said Atlanta’s investigation into his tenure did not find any evidence that he discriminated against any members of the LGBT community.

When he announced his decision to fire Cochran, Reed said it was not only because the fire chief didn’t consult him before publishing the 2013 book, but the fact that Cochran spoke out about his suspension a month prior, despite being told to withhold public comment during an investigation into his leadership.

“His religious decisions are not the basis of the problem,” Reed said during a news conference at the time. “His judgment is the basis of the problem.”

Cochran took the city to court over the decision, and legal action action is still ongoing, he said.

Republicans lauded Cochran on Tuesday as a hero who was wrongfully treated, and several homed in on a statement from Atlanta City Council Member Alex Wan in which he said city employees had to check their religious beliefs and opinions “at the door.”

“That’s why this legislation needs to pass,” said Ohio U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, who leads the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “That’s why people like Mr. Cochran are heroes, for his whole life experience and certainly for standing up for the fact that you don’t have to check your religious beliefs at the door.”

Support for the legislation broke clearly along partisan lines.

Republicans said the measure would prohibit the government from altering the employment status, federal grant award or tax treatment of a person or company because of their beliefs that marriage should be between a man and a woman or sex should be reserved for wedlock. They said it would not touch existing civil rights law, nor would it lead to the cutting off of a person’s hospital visitation rights or other government benefits, but that it was a much-needed protection for proponents of traditional views on marriage.

Democrats said the legislation would have much larger implications and potentially sanction discrimination against gay people, single mothers and unmarried couples. They compared it to the arguments that long underpinned racial segregation.

Democrats also slammed the panel’s Republicans for holding a hearing on the bill exactly one month after a gunman fatally shot 49 people at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando. House Democratic leaders as well as Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta were planning a candlelight vigil Tuesday evening at the Capitol to mark that attack.

“To say that this hearing is ill-timed is the understatement of the year,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat.

Despite a flurry of action on religious liberty legislation at the state level — including a high-profile fight in Georgia — GOP leaders in Congress have been slow to take up their own version at the federal level. Indeed, Tuesday’s hearing in the House marked the first legislative action on FADA since it was introduced in both chambers last summer. Georgia’s 10 Republican congressmen have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill in the House, as have Johnny Isakson and David Perdue in the Senate.

“In a sense I’m frustrated because there seems to be legislators that just simply do not get it and see that just living out your faith could really cost you a hot price,” Cochran said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the sidelines of the hearing. “But on the other hand, I have hope in God that somehow or another our country will do what’s right and protect the religious freedoms.”