The story of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran’s dismissal is circulating widely around the web, and for what looks to be good reason. The affair has been reported widely, with stories and follow-ups here and here and here and here. Rather than rehearse all the details of his firing, I’ll point you to Ryan Anderson’s article and analysis. There are disputes over what exactly happened: Was Cochran fired for failing to follow municipal guidelines for publishing a book? Or, were the views expressed in the book (which deemed homosexuality immoral) the true pretext for his dismissal? It seems the answer is yes, to both.

The lines that got Cochran in trouble are the following:

  • “Uncleanness—whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, all other forms of sexual perversion.” 
  • “Naked men refuse to give in, so they pursue sexual fulfillment through multiple partners, with the opposite sex, the same sex and sex outside of marriage and many other vile, vulgar and inappropriate ways which defile their body-temple and dishonor God.”

If statements like these are the basis for removal from public office, then every believing, obedient Catholic, Muslim, etc. must be queried and (probably) fired from public service.

Things heated up when The New York Times editorial board set about discrediting Chief Cochran in particular and religious liberty in general. As they write:

It should not matter that the investigation found no evidence that Mr. Cochran had mistreated gays or lesbians. His position as a high-level public servant makes his remarks especially problematic, and requires that he be held to a different standard. . . . If he wants to work as a public official, however, he may not foist his religious views on other city employees who have the right to a boss who does not speak of them as second-class citizens.

The argument suggests that even The New York Times believes Cochran’s firing was warranted based on views he holds, which would seem to contradict Mayor Reed’s claim that Cochran was removed “for failing to get approval for the book’s publication, for commenting publicly on his suspension after being told not to, and for exposing the city to possible discrimination lawsuits.” Either way, The New York Times has sought to nationalize the issue and make Cochran the poster child for publicly holding unacceptable beliefs.

Mayor Reed and The New York Times editorial board would do well to explain whether Cochran should have faced the same scrutiny if he had given out copies of the Bible (instead of his book) to his colleagues?

If no, then it seems a bit inconsistent to dismiss an individual for views well within the parameters of historic Christian belief. The Bible says things even less gently than he did. If Cochran is guilty of a firing offense for upholding his Biblical views, then we must pose a strict question to every public official: “Are you an obedient, committed Catholic, Muslim, Evangelical . . . ?”

The inquiry into belief, not action, is necessary because attitudes themselves are regarded as destructive in this new dispensation. Cochran was, indeed, investigated and exonerated from any charges that he treated gay or lesbian persons disrespectfully at any time during his long career.

But that doesn’t matter. As Mayor Reed stated, the standard here isn’t actual discrimination in the workplace. It is “fear of being discriminated against,” which he alleges Cochran has spread. Readers here may decide for themselves just how hateful and fearsome the man is by watching this speech he delivered yesterday at a rally in his defense:

My termination has indeed made a great statement. To all of the remaining city employees, if you seek to live out the true meaning of our nation’s pledge and constitution and have a faith, a living faith that does justice and believe that sex should be between a man and a woman in the bonds of holy matrimony, we have made a great statement that you better keep your mouth shut or you will be fired.

These statements are an indictment against our American values and do not embrace the diversity of which we are so proudly boasting of here in our wonderful city of Atlanta. Indeed, a strong statement has been made: all people groups are welcomed and embraced in the city of Atlanta, except the groups that believe the Scripture regarding God’s purpose for sex.

This experience has taught me that there are worldly consequences for publicly standing for righteousness. But I stand before you to say that the Kingdom consequences are far greater and more glorious than the worldly consequences.

But let’s not for a moment think that calls for such ideals are a plea to bypass serious, adult debate. Christian truth claims about human sexuality are worlds apart from LGBT truth claims about human sexuality. Let’s have that debate. Let’s see which system offers people and society a better path toward flourishing. The ominous alternative, one we must all shun in order to live in a free society, is whether we’ll live in a country that polices dissenting belief on sexuality or whether we’ll allow diverse beliefs based on legitimate, rational grounds to persist freely. Sadly, in this debate, it is secularists that desire a purge, not a debate.

This is but another example of the steamrolling of conscience and the diminishment of religious liberty. It also seems unnecessarily harsh to dismiss a public servant for a bureaucratic infraction, especially a public servant whose career demonstrates an otherwise stellar commitment to the public good. Let’s pray for Chief Cochran, that he and Atlanta’s mayor might be reconciled, that religious liberty would be upheld, and for his restoration to his post as Atlanta’s fire chief.

Andrew Walker is Director of Policy Studies at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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