What the Atlanta fire chief did wrong

Public officials don't have the same First Amendment rights as you and me -- if they want to keep their jobs.

Seal of Atlanta
Seal of Atlanta

Seal of Atlanta

Last week, Atlanta mayor Kassim Reed ignited a firestorm in Georgia — and beyond — by firing fire chief Kelvin Cochran over a book he wrote on Christian manhood that describes homosexuality as a “perversion” like bestiality and pedophilia, and characterizes homosexual acts as “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.” Cochrane, who is a pillar of his church, published the book, Who Told You that You Were Naked?, in 2013.

Yesterday, the Georgia Baptist Convention held a rally in support of Cochran intended to call attention “to the reality of Christian discrimination in the workplace. Now is the time for all Bible-believing Christians to show their support for Chief Cochran’s courage and for our First Amendment rights as American citizens!”

“It’s persecution when a godly fire chief loses his job over expressing his Christian faith,” said GBC executive director Robert White.

The precise reason for Cochran’s firing seems to be that he did not get permission to publish the book as city rules require — a claim he denies. It is likely that both sides will get their chance to make their case in court. In the meantime, however, it’s important to understand that there’s a difference between the First Amendment rights of ordinary citizens and those of public officials.

According to the investigative report  by the city’s law department released yesterday, Cochran distributed the book to nine of his subordinates, including three who didn’t ask for a copy. In one case, he gave the book to a battalion chief during a counseling session for the man’s promotion to assistant chief. Although there was no evidence that he allowed his views on homosexuality to affect his departmental decision-making, one retired battalion chief, a lesbian, told investigators that she had taken a voluntary demotion because she suspected him of holding them.

“There was a consistent sentiment among the witnesses that firefighters throughout the organization are appalled by the sentiments expressed in the book,” said the report. “There also is general agreement the contents of the book have eroded trust and have compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.”

Cochran’s defenders point out that his book devotes only minimal attention to homosexuality. That’s neither here nor there. Suppose a public official published and distributed to subordinates a book that, in a single sentence, made religiously based claims about Jews and Muslims not going to heaven or about how God opposes mixed-race marriage. Publication of such beliefs — perfectly legitimate under the First Amendment — would be widely accepted as a disqualification  from holding public office.

The same goes for views on homosexuality, no matter how sincerely held or widely shared within one’s own religious community. Legal norms have changed, and like it or not, that means that public officials have to maintain strict limits on any views they share contrary to those norms.

As the investigative report points out, Chief Cochran himself directed that a complaint be brought against a squad of firefighters who posted a picture of themselves on Facebook supporting Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s negative stance on homosexuality. Firefighters Union president Steven Borders contends that Cochran should be held to the same standard as the squad members, who were given 30-day suspensions. Actually, the chief needs to be held to a higher standard.

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