Jan 09, 2015

Some fundamentalist Christians are clueless when it comes to free speech. They seem to think they have the right to say whatever they want without any sort of consequences. But as Atlanta’s fire chief recently learned, public officials can’t spread anti-gay propaganda in the workplace and keep their job.

Kelvin Cochran was fired this week for distributing a hateful self-published book to some of his employees last year. Titled Who Told You That You Were Naked, the 2013 work described homosexuality as “unclean,” “a sexual perversion,” “vulgar” and “inappropriate.” Cochran likened it to bestiality.

When word got out in November that Cochran had handed out copies of his overtly Christian tome to his employees, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed suspended him for one month.

“I want to be clear that the material in Chief Cochran’s book is not representative of my personal beliefs, and is inconsistent with the administration's work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all citizens – regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race, and religious beliefs,” Reed said in a statement.

But Cochran didn’t accept his punishment in silence. During a December meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention, Cochran declined to discuss his suspension, but did reference it – while also promoting his book.

“I didn't come to talk about that, but instead to share my testimony about the book that put me in a situation of being laid off for 30 days without pay,” he said.

Less than one month later, Cochran was out of a job. Reed said he gave Cochran the opportunity to resign, but he refused to do so.

For his part, Cochran remains unrepentant.

“I’m not apologetic for writing the book,” Cochran said after learning of his termination. “Everything I wrote in the book is based on scriptures, not my opinions.”

No one is saying Cochran doesn’t have a right to his beliefs, despicable though they are. But his beliefs called his ability to do his job into question. What if a local gay bar were on fire? Would Cochran do his best to make sure the fire department responded quickly? Given his obvious bias toward gays, it’s hard to say.

Cochran also raised constitutional concerns by proselytizing on the job. Public officials in leadership positions clearly do not have the right to force religious propaganda on their subordinates. Simply writing the book was not a problem; it became one when Cochran passed it out at work.

In fact, USA Today reported, Reed did not list discrimination as the reason Cochran was let go. Officially, he was fired for his decision to hand out the book because it violated the city code of conduct.

Of course, Religious Right groups see things a little differently. To them, this is just another case of Christian “persecution.” One right winger equated Cochran’s firing with acts of terrorism, drawing a parallel with the recent attack in Paris that resulted in the murder of 12 people.

“A publisher published something that offended,” wrote Erick Erickson, a Fox News contributor and editor of RedState.com. “So the terrorists decided they needed to publicly destroy and ruin the publisher in a way that would not only make that destruction a public spectacle, but do it so spectacularly that others would think twice before publishing or saying anything similar. It is not because the ideas are bad, but because the ideas offend a group that can destroy and tear down.”

Erickson concluded: “The terrorists did what had to be done to publicly destroy and ruin the offender… And the terrorists won in Atlanta.”

Gary Cass of DefendChristians.org took it down a notch from there but still expressed an extreme viewpoint. He suggested Mayor Reed shouldn’t call himself a Christian if he doesn’t share Cochran’s views on homosexuality.

“So here’s somebody [Reed] who ostensibly identifies as a Christian, who thinks he can be fair in the way that he conducts his business but apparently [thinks] Chief Cochran can’t be fair,” he wrote. “So it’s an interesting confluence of hypocrisy and double standards all at the same time.”

Other Cochran defenders were slightly less hyperbolic.

“This idea that you have to surrender your First Amendment rights and check your faith at the door of public service is wrong, and we cannot let it stand,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins in an email asking people to support Cochran.

Here’s where the Religious Right’s cluelessness on freedom of speech is really apparent. Public officials don’t have to “check your faith at the door” when they take office. But they do have a duty to serve everyone and not spread hateful attacks against constituents. A public official is expected to treat everyone equally and with dignity. Cochran’s antics raised doubts on his ability to do that, and he was rightly fired.