ATLANTA, GA ATLANTA — Mayor Kasim Reed’s decision to dismiss his fire chief last week for giving co-workers copies of a Christian self-help book condemning homosexuality is fanning new kinds of legal and political flames in this city, where deeply held religious convictions exist in a kind of defining tension with a reputation for New South tolerance.
Mr. Reed fired Kelvin Cochran, the chief, on Tuesday over the distribution of his book, which condemns homosexual acts as “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.” Reached at home on Thursday, Mr. Cochran referred all questions to his lawyers, who issued a statement on his behalf.
“I am heartbroken that I will no longer be able to serve the city and the people I love as fire chief, for no reason other than my Christian faith,” Mr. Cochran said in the statement released by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based conservative legal organization that is representing him. “It’s ironic that the city points to tolerance and inclusion as part of its reasoning. What could be more intolerant and exclusionary than ending a public servant’s 30 years of distinguished service for his religious beliefs?”
Those sentiments are particularly weighty in Atlanta, where the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a hometown hero, remains a moral guidepost for governance. As a legal matter, the spat may eventually be settled in court: Greg Scott, a spokesman for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said that the chief and his lawyers were “currently assessing legal options” that might “vindicate his right to free speech.”
But the case has already proved to be a major headache for Mr. Reed, one of the most powerful Democrats in elected office in the South.
The mayor argued that his firing of the chief had nothing to do with Mr. Cochran’s Christian faith, but rather with a lack of judgment on the part of a man charged with managing a 750-member department.
Mr. Reed said that the chief failed to follow proper protocol in receiving approvals from city officials to publish his book, a claim that Mr. Cochran disputes. Mr. Reed also said that Mr. Cochran opened the city to possible discrimination lawsuits.
Beth Littrell, a senior lawyer in the Southern regional office of Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights group, called Mr. Reed’s decision “courageous.”
“You can’t couch bigotry and create an intimidating environment at work, and cloak it in your beliefs and not expect to have consequences,” Ms. Littrell said.
But conservatives and religious organizations were outraged. The Georgia Baptist Convention has organized an online petition demanding that the firing be reversed. The evangelist Franklin Graham, in an opinion piece for a religious news site, called Mr. Cochran the “latest target of politically correct bullying against Bible-believing Christians.”
On Twitter, State Representative Christian Coomer, a Republican from Cartersville, Ga., called Mr. Reed the “anti-free speech, anti-religious freedom, anti-free press mayor of Atlanta.”
Mr. Reed said Friday that his email inbox had been flooded with hundreds of messages per day criticizing the decision. And it could eventually become unwanted baggage for the ambitious, 45-year-old mayor, whose tenure will end in 2018 because of term limits.
If Mr. Reed ever ventures beyond Atlanta and into a race for statewide office, the incident could end up hurting him among rural, Christian whites, who, as a rule, tend to be wary of Atlanta politicians. But the mayor said that he had no regrets.
“I think it’s more important that I’m able to look myself in the mirror,” he said, adding: “In any future campaign I’ll be happy to talk about my record in office — and I’d be happy to talk about my termination of Kelvin Cochran.”
More pressing is the possible effect that Mr. Cochran’s firing could have on a continuing debate over whether Georgia needs a so-called religious freedom law, which would give more legal sway to individuals who challenge state and local government policies that they believe to be discriminatory.
Such a bill has been pre-filed in the State House of Representatives in anticipation of the coming legislative session, which starts Monday. Mr. Cochran’s firing has already been cited by some of the bill’s Republican supporters as an example of the kind of religious persecution Georgians face.
State Representative Ed Setzler, in an interview, said that the episode was one of a number of “outright examples of individuals’ religious beliefs being deemed unacceptable by government entities. I think this is a very clear and unfortunate case of that.”
Many of Mr. Cochran’s supporters are also supporting the bill.
Last year, similar legislation died in the Republican-controlled Legislature after critics said that it would have allowed individuals and businesses to discriminate against gays on religious grounds.
The most significant opposition came from international corporations like Delta Air Lines, which have transformed Atlanta into a regional economic powerhouse. In a statement last year, Delta said that such bills would violate the company’s “core values of mutual respect.”
State Senator Josh McKoon, a sponsor of the legislation last year, said that nothing in the bills, last year or this year, would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gay people. He said that the news media and the business community conflated the Georgia bill with high-profile legislation in Arizona, under debate around the same time, that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gays. (The Arizona bill, which passed the state legislature, was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, last February.)
Mr. McKoon is eager to bring up the matter again in the coming session. So far, the business community remains opposed: In December, Trey Childress, a former chief operating officer for two Republican governors, sent lawmakers a letter urging them to once again vote no. Mr. Childress said he had written the letter on behalf of a coalition of businesses called Competitive Georgia.
“Georgia is better than this,” Mr. Childress wrote. “Our reputation, as a state, is at risk.”
It remains to be seen if grass-roots anger over Mr. Cochran’s firing will overtake objections of the business class. Mr. Reed is among those who oppose the bill, and he said it is likely that the corporate sector still has the upper hand. Still, he could not mask his frustration with Mr. Cochran.
“I hired him to put out fires,” Mr. Reed said. “Not to create them.”
From The New York Times