The firing of Atlanta’s fire chief has already become a flashpoint in the debate over how to balance the religious beliefs of public officials against the civil rights of their constituents. Now the argument has spread to the Capitol — prompting questions about proper congressional roles in local controversies, especially when statewide electoral and legislative consequences lie just below the surface.
Chief Kelvin Cochran was dismissed six weeks ago, after a city investigation into a self-published book laying out his evangelical Christian religious beliefs. Its most incendiary passage described being gay or lesbian as a “sexual perversion” comparable to pedophilia or bestiality and labeled homosexual acts as “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.” Mayor Kasim Reed said the firing was not about the chief’s religious beliefs, but because Cochran had shown poor judgment in possibly exposing the city to anti-discrimination lawsuits. The inquiry found the chief didn’t obtain the required permission to write the self-help Bible study treatise titled, “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” It also found he wrongly distributed it to people under his command who didn’t ask for it. Cochran says he followed the city’s rules, didn’t press the 160-page book unwillingly on anyone and can only conclude he lost his job because of his professions of faith.
Those are the bare-bones facts of a controversy that began bubbling when the city probe started last fall. Joining the argument are a variety of advocacy groups ranging from the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Family Research Council, in the former chief’s corner, to the Human Rights Campaign and the firefighters’ union, who are backing the city.
But it was only last week that six Republican House members from Georgia got involved, with a blistering letter calling on Reed to reinstate the fire chief. It “appears” the mayor violated “fundamental principles of free speech and religious freedom,” they wrote, and that Cochran was a victim of illegal discrimination when he was “targeted for retaliation and dismissal solely because of his religious views.”
The lawmakers inserted themselves into the controversy at a crucial juncture on two fronts.
They went public with the letter hours before Cochran quite literally made a federal case out of losing his job, by filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court contending his First Amendment rights had been violated and he had been illegally discriminated against because his religiously based opposition to “same-sex marriage and homosexual conduct” is contrary to the Democratic mayor's beliefs.
The members also acted just as the GOP-controlled state legislature was beginning deliberations on a top priority for social conservatives in Georgia. That's the enactment of a so-called religious freedom law that would give more legal powers to individuals who challenge state and local government policies they view as discriminatory. A similar measure died last year because enough Republicans were swayed by the argument — advanced by powerful businesses including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, Atlanta’s marquee employers — that such a bill would provide legal cover for discrimination against gays on religious grounds.
The author of the letter, freshman Rep. Barry Loudermilk, who represents Marietta and the mostly middle-class white suburbs northwest of Atlanta, said its timing was purely coincidental.
Five of the six signatories came to Congress after concluding eight years or longer as state legislators: Loudermilk and Reps. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, Austin Scott, Lynn Westmoreland (a former state House minority leader) and Tom Price (a former state Senate majority leader). They were joined by freshman Rep. Jody Hice, who just won his first political office after gaining notice as a politically engaged Southern Baptist preacher.
In a phone interview during last week’s recess, Loudermilk said members of the group did not time their involvement in an effort to help build momentum among their former colleagues at the state capital for the “religious freedom” measure. “There was no correlation at all between the two,” he said. At the same time, he expressed support for the legislation and predicted it would pass in large part because the Cochran case “has awakened a sleeping giant down here in Georgia, with people realizing how close they are to having their religious liberties violated.”
Loudermilk, who spent four years in the previous decade as state GOP chairman, also insisted his motive had nothing to do with undermining the standing of Atlanta’s mayor. The 45-year-old Reed, considered the top Democratic power-broker in the state, has eschewed interest in running for the Senate but is said to be considering a gubernatorial bid in 2018, when his term limit as mayor coincides with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s own term limit. Reed would be the first African-American governor from the Deep South.
Cochran, who is also black, spent a year in Washington, D.C., early in the Obama administration as the presidentially appointed head of the U.S. Fire Administration, an arm of the Homeland Security Department that promotes fire safety and improved training for firefighters.
Four Republicans in the Georgia delegation did not join the letter. The state’s four Democrats in the House weren’t invited.
All the signatories have predicated their congressional service on the belief the federal government should be getting smaller and less powerful, and that the people in power in Washington, D.C., should generally steer clear of almost all state and local controversies — even when they involve questions of civil rights. But Loudermilk said his group concluded an exception to that adherence to federalism was warranted in the fire chief’s case, because “the protection of religious liberty under the First Amendment” is a federal issue Congress ought to care about.
It’s likely the final word on “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” has not been written yet — by either the courts, the legislature, the voters of Georgia or some of the most conservative Republicans at the Capitol.
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