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Story of Religious Freedom Defense's Star Witness Is a Canard

Former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran
Former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran

Don't be too quick to buy former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran's tale of religious persecution. 


The star witness of this month's U.S. House hearing about the anti-LGBT First Amendment Defense Act convincingly played the victim card. But former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran's story of faith-based discrimination isn't what it seems, and his firing wouldn't have been prevented by the law being proposed.

While several Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform noted July 12 that Cochran's dismissal would not have been affected by FADA, Cochran stuck to his talking points, insisting he had lost his job as Atlanta's fire chief solely because of his faith.

Atlanta city officials, Cochran said Tuesday, disagreed with his "Judeo-Christian beliefs about marriage," which Cochran shared in a self-published book titled Who Told You That You Were Naked?

"I wrote a book to encourage men, inspire them to fulfill their God-called purposes," Cochran said in his opening statement. "Husbands, fathers, and community leaders. Only a few paragraphs of the 162-page book address teachings -- biblical teachings on marriage and sexuality. Verses taken directly from the Holy Scripture. Yet the city of Atlanta's officials, including Mayor Reed, made it clear that it was those beliefs that resulted in my suspension, the investigation, and my termination."

"There was an assumption from the outset of discovering my Judeo-Christian belief that because of my beliefs, I would have a propensity to hate," Cochran added.

Cochran took his place at the top of the right wing's list of those who believe they've been religiously persecuted back in January 2015, when the mayor of Atlanta dismissed the fire chief at the end of a 30-day suspension. Cochran had been placed on that unpaid suspension after he published the book, which laid bare his faith-based beliefs about LGBT people, including equating homosexuality with bestiality and incest. The book also made disparaging comments about women and Jewish people.

When announcing Cochran's firing, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed explained that Cochran's decision to self-publish the book violated the city's standard of conduct and made the mayor question the chief's ability to lead an inclusive workforce that abides by the city's nondiscrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as well as other characteristics.

In subsequent interviews, Reed reiterated his assertion that Cochran's professional and ethical judgment was what ultimately resulted in his dismissal. Reed expressed frustration that Cochran did not obtain permission to publish the book in advance and that he allegedly promoted it while using his title as Atlanta fire chief.

"Let me lay this out simply," Reed summarized in an interview with MSNBC's Tamron Hall in January 2015. "He didn't get the permission that was needed, he didn't discuss it with me, and I hired him, at the end of the day, to put out and prevent fires, not to be at the center of one. And the fact that I'm on your show right now is precisely the reason that we require people to get permission before publishing books. He identified himself as the fire chief for the city of Atlanta, and in the past, he has disciplined other members of his staff for support of Chick-fil-A during a controversy in Georgia, and he suspended them for a 30-day period of time." (Mayor Reed's office did not respond to The Advocate's requests for additional comment by press time.)

Shortly after he lost his job, Cochran delivered a sermon at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Cartersville, Ga., where he compared himself to biblical figures, including Job, Daniel, and even Jesus.

"I found out there are worldly consequences for standing for righteousness, but what God is about to show everybody is that there are also kingdom consequences for standing for righteousness," Cochran said in his February 2015 sermon. "And he's going to vindicate me in such a way that everybody will see it and everybody will know that it's nobody but the most high God who is vindicating me."

But none of that made it into Tuesday's hearing. During his sworn testimony, Cochran repeatedly claimed that he was fired solely because of his personal religious beliefs, often stating that the city of Atlanta's investigation into his conduct determined he had not directly discriminated against any of his employees. Cochran expressed gratitude and agreed with several committee members who lamented that Cochran's religious freedom had been infringed upon, and that he was a victim of anti-Christian discrimination.

Even out former Rep. Barney Frank acknowledged that Cochran's dismissal may have been unfair. But, he noted, even if FADA were in place at the time, Cochran wouldn't have been protected because he was a city employee, not a federal employee or contractor.

What's more, the agency that reprimanded Cochran is a municipal government, not a part of the federal government. That means that even if FADA were in force, Mayor Reed would have been within his legal rights to terminate Cochran's employment based on his interpretation that the former fire chief violated the city's nondiscrimination law.

The text of the bill, as introduced June 17, is clear that its scope applies only to punitive actions taken by the federal government or its agents, not by local administrations.

The lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, Utah Republican Mike Lee, clearly stated in his sworn testimony July 12 that the bill "does not modify any of our existing civil rights protections." He did not mention that there are currently no nationwide protections that prohibit discrimination on the basis of LGBT identity.

"It simply reaffirms all Americans's God-given, constitutionally protected right to live according to their religious or moral convictions without fear of punishment by the government," Lee said.

But more than a year ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that there was "no sign" that the Internal Revenue Service or any other federal agency was planning to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches, nonprofits, or other agencies that held what conservatives call "traditional" views about marriage. And despite FADA supporters' claims to the contrary, no charity or welfare agency has ever been "forced" by the government to close due to its religious beliefs -- though some, like Catholic Charities, have voluntarily stopped providing services rather than comply with existing nondiscrimination law and serve all citizens equally.

During the nearly four-hour hearing, neither Sen. Lee nor the bill's lead sponsor in the House, Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, mentioned the thinly veiled purpose of the bill, as it's been exposed by LGBT advocacy groups. In reality, FADA is less about protecting the faithful from alleged religious persecution, and more about rolling back the modest nondiscrimination protections that LGBT Americans have gained under President Obama.

As out Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern explained after the July 12 hearing (held on the one-month anniversary of the Pulse massacre in Orlando), FADA would wholly dismantle the executive order Obama signed in July 2014, which barred government employees and federal contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

"[FADA] would instantly revoke every federal gay rights measure ever passed and pre-emptively nullify any future measures," explains Stern. "President Obama's LGBT nondiscrimination order would be entirely undermined: Federal contractors would only need assert that gay sex and gay marriage violate their 'moral convictions,' and they could fire gay employees with impunity. Federal grantees, such as homeless shelters and drug treatment programs, could turn away gay people at the door. Businesses could refuse to let gay employees care for a sick spouse, in contravention of medical leave laws. Even low-level government employees could refuse to process gay couples' tax returns, Social Security checks, or visa applications."

Nevertheless, there was no shortage of apocalyptic fearmongering at the congressional hearing. Kristin Waggoner, an attorney with the powerhouse anti-LGBT legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, summarized the paranoid tone of FADA supporters in her closing remarks.

"There's no question that there is government hostility toward people who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman," Waggoner said. "What we're seeing at the state and at the federal level is that those who have the politically unpopular view [that marriage is between one man and one woman] are being silenced, banished, and punished."

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Sunnivie Brydum

Sunnivie is the managing editor of The Advocate, and an award-winning journalist whose passion is covering the politics of equality and elevating the unheard stories of our community. Originally from Colorado, she and her spouse now live in Los Angeles, along with their three fur-children: dogs Luna and Cassie Doodle, and "Meow Button" Tilly.
Sunnivie is the managing editor of The Advocate, and an award-winning journalist whose passion is covering the politics of equality and elevating the unheard stories of our community. Originally from Colorado, she and her spouse now live in Los Angeles, along with their three fur-children: dogs Luna and Cassie Doodle, and "Meow Button" Tilly.