Ex-Atlanta Fire Chief Removed for Faith: Gov't the Biggest Threat to Religious Freedom

Ousted Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran is interviewed about his religious discrimination lawsuit against the City in this video posted on February 16, 2015. | (Photo: Screenshot/ADFMediaRelations)

Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who was fired from his job last year after the city took offense to a book he wrote on his Christian faith promoting biblical marriage, shared his testimony before a House committee, speaking about the need for a measure to protect religious freedom for those who believe in traditional marriage.

"After being born and raised in poverty, I rose to become the first African-American Fire Chief in the city of Shreveport, Louisiana, and ultimately held the highest fire office in the nation," Cochran said at a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the First Amendment Defense Act.

"Despite these achievements, government officials used the very religious convictions that fueled my professional success to bring an end to my career in pubic service," he said.

A bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho, seeks to prevent federal government agencies from using taxes, licensing, grants and other ways to coerce or discriminate against individuals or organizations that sincerely hold religious views on marriage and sexuality.

"There is an ever increasing attack on religious freedom and expressive freedom" in the country, Cochran said, calling the government "its biggest threat."

The city and mayor of Atlanta terminated Cochran's employment last year because of his Christian faith and beliefs. Mayor Kasim Reed first suspended Cochran for 30 days and announced that he would have to complete "sensitivity training" after activists who don't agree with the fire chief's Christian views on sex complained about the men's devotional book Cochran had written on his personal time.

The 162-page book, Who Told You That You Were Naked?, briefly addresses biblical sexual morality. Despite an investigation, that included interviews with employees, finding that Cochran did not discriminate against anyone, he was fired by the mayor who cited a need for tolerance.

"Because of this government discrimination, the First Amendment Defense Act is necessary to preserve the freedom and dignity of people who hold beliefs about marriage that have been embraced throughout the world for most of human history and who seek to peacefully live consistent with those beliefs without fear of unjust government punishment," Cochran said at the hearing.

"The actions by the City of Atlanta do not reflect American values. The real test of liberty is what happens when citizens disagree on important issues. By terminating me because of my beliefs, the City failed to reflect the true tolerance and diversity that has always set America apart. Instead, the City labeled as outcasts the many diverse people – from Christians to Jews to Muslims – who express their faith's longstanding teachings on marriage," he added.

"Among the most important Christian values is to love without condition all humankind. I believe that very person – without exception – possesses the image of the Creator, and as such as inherent dignity and worth," he said. "In the fire service, I had the privilege to live this virtue every day for 34 years. I would have laid down my life for anyone in the community. And I would gladly do so today if necessary, even though I no longer serve in a profession that requires this ultimate sacrifice."

"A religious or ideological test cannot be used to fire a public servant, but the city did exactly that, as the evidence and facts of this case clearly demonstrate," Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued Cochran's case before a court, said earlier. "We look forward to proceeding with this case because of the injustice against Chief Cochran, one of the most accomplished fire chiefs in the nation, but also because the city's actions place every city employee in jeopardy who may hold to a belief that city officials don't like."

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