The plight of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran has caught America's attention, but he is just the latest Christian to have his career vaporized by something that was said or written, according to religious liberty advocates.
But unlike the dozens of other Christians who have lost jobs or businesses because they dared to violate the sensitivities of the LGBT community, Cochran's firing became a national story.
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The fact that establishment media like the New York Times, ABC, NBC, CNN and others have reported the firing of Cochran is good, but it could also be bad.
The widespread coverage could signal that the media elites are sending a message to America that this is about to become standard procedure: Speak out of turn, even in your private life, in a way that offends the LGBT community, and you lose your job.
"It's a chilling effect, said John Whitehead, president and founder of the Rutherford Institute, a legal defense and civil liberties organization. "Free speech in America, in my opinion, is basically dying. It's being filtered by the national media and being scooped up and evaluated by the government."
Cochran got caught in the filter, fired by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed because he wrote a book for Christian men that presented the case for traditional morals. Just one page in the book discussed homosexuality, describing it as one of many sexual sins. That was enough to get him fired, despite his many accolades both locally and nationally as a distinguished fire chief.
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Travis Weber, director of the center for religious liberty at the Family Research Council, says Cochran has become the new face of Christian persecution in America. But the backlash against the mayor has been larger than he perhaps expected.
Hundreds rallied on Cochran's behalf at the state Capitol last Monday in Atlanta and delivered petitions signed by 40,000 supporters.
"It's funny you can see the mayor shifting in his statements," Weber said. "First he said the firing was not about anything the chief wrote or said, it was about his judgment because he failed to conform with ethics requirements while publishing a book, but then later he said the chief violated the need to create a welcoming environment for everybody. So which is it?"
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Reed showed his hand on Nov. 24, prior to the firing, when he suspended the chief and issued the following statement:
"I profoundly disagree with and am deeply disturbed by the sentiments expressed in the paperback regarding the LGBT community. I will not tolerate discrimination of any kind within my administration."
But the mayor never made specific allegations of discriminatory acts on the part of Cochran. He simply didn't like the book that his fire chief authored.
Cochran, a decorated 34-year veteran firefighter and a Baptist deacon, obtained permission to write the book, per city policy. But Reed says he got permission from the wrong person, a reason Weber sees as disingenuous.
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Weber said Reed almost certainly fired Cochran to appease activists within Atlanta's politically powerful LGBT community. He believes all other explanations amount to whitewash.
"The mayor wants to have his cake and eat it too, and he should have to be pinned down and forced to explain his actions," Weber said. "I have a problem believing if this book was about organic gardening that we'd be seeing much media attention on this because he wouldn't have been fired."
Both the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have written editorials supporting the mayor's decision to fire Cochran.
"This is one of the more egregious scenarios we have seen because in other cases you haven’t seen people being fired because of their private views being expressed just in their private lives, and that's what the New York Times appears to be openly validating," Weber said.
When that happens, he said, it marks a concerted effort by media elites to "normalize" government action that would have previously been considered outrageous.
"That has been veiled in the past but here they openly admit there is no allegation of discriminatory treatment toward anyone and this was written as part of his private views, so this is definitely part of a pattern but I think this goes further and takes it up a notch," Weber said.
Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which has taken up Cochran's case, said such bizarre behavior by a big-city mayor cannot be allowed to stand or America will pay a heavy price in terms of lost freedom.
"Every American is guaranteed freedom of speech and the freedom to live according to our beliefs. Our elected officials are supposed to be the greatest protectors of those freedoms, not their greatest threat," Theriot told WND. "Yet, some powerful politicians are sending a chilling message that should alarm every American. We have examples ranging from the Obama administration’s mandates forcing Americans to pay for abortion pills and elective abortions, to Houston’s mayor targeting pastors, to the city of Atlanta firing Chief Cochran for his religious beliefs."
Conservative Christians as second-class citizens?
If this becomes the new normal, the effect will be to blackball an entire class of people, conservative Christians, making it impossible for them to hold government jobs and practice their faith, even outside of their place of employment.
That's akin to a caste system, Theriot said.
"No politician has the right to pick and choose which Americans enjoy these freedoms, while punishing other citizens for nothing other than disagreeing with the government," he said.
Whitehead said multiple surveys indicate about half of Americans now worry about what they post online. And for good reason.
"If you say the wrong word, or when adults start using the first letter of a word instead of the word itself, you know something has happened," Whitehead said. "They do this because they know there are certain trigger words that could get you in trouble."
Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer, said the Rutherford Institute routinely gets calls from people who are visited by police for using certain words online or voicing criticisms considered off limits.
Brandon Raub was perhaps the most high-profile case.
Raub, a 26-year-old former Marine, found himself detained against his will for a week in 2012 after making a Facebook post that questioned the government's official explanation of the 9/11 attacks. Federal, state and local authorities worked in tandem to scoop Raub up and place him in a mental institution. They had no arrest warrant and no search warrant.
Since that case made national news, Whitehead said he has received dozens of calls from other veterans saying they were detained under involuntary commitment laws just like Raub. About 20,000 of these type of detentions take place every year in Virginia alone.
"Just over a Facebook post, in many cases," he said. "I've had veterans call me for just posting something, and then the FBI agents come to their door the next day."
"People are nervous they're going to be harassed. We're moving into a censorship society. I see the cases on a daily basis," Whitehead continued.
He says the people of Atlanta did the right thing by rallying at the state Capitol.
"I would say that rallies at local courthouses, state capitols, yes. Even if you don’t agree with them, if it's free speech, stand with them," he said. "If there's two strange men standing on the street corner saying strange things, even if I don’t agree, I support them. Why, because if they can say something unpopular, so can I. I've actually gone up and shaken their hands in New York City and said, 'Keep the free speech alive.'"
Whitehead said the National Security Agency downloads and filters 256 million text messages per day of average Americans.
"This is the average American citizen. They're seeing what you're saying. They have lists, all your banking records, where you spending your money, what books you buy," he said. "So if people really want to keep this country free, they're going to have to support everybody's speech, not just those they agree with."
Military veterans also under attack
He said military veterans and Christians are the two groups most under a microscope right now.
"I see outspoken veterans, a number go to Afghanistan and they come back, they say they didn't like what they saw there and they get investigated," Whitehead said. "Brandon Raub, a loyal American, and a Christian by the way, and a veteran, they put him in a mental hospital. His mother approached every group and couldn't get anyone to listen to her. We got involved, and we got him out, and now we're suing the government over it."
Whitehead said the firing of Cochran and the imprisonment of Raub shows the U.S. hasn't learned much from the oppressive regimes out of which it has helped liberate others.
He said the First Amendment is being "gutted" by extremists on the left under the guise of tolerance.
"It's not tolerance; it's intolerance. The media is intolerant; the government now is intolerant. Hate speech laws are egregious. Former regimes like Nazi Germany, we're repeating it. Great majorities of people went to concentration camps in Germany because they were categorized as 'a-social.' They got rounded up. That's what you're seeing today."
That's why Whitehead will defend even the most distasteful speech, such as that by Westboro Baptist church leader Margie Phelps.
"I did not agree with her, but she came to Charlottesville (Virginia) and I prepared her for her case. She won," he said. "That's the key to free speech. If it's going to be free, it can't be bridled. The media shouldn't be frowning on it or carping on it. A robust free speech keeps liberty alive."
Drawing inspiration from Paris rallies
So while it is encouraging to see thousands rallying to Cochran's side, it is disconcerting to see major media outlets condoning Mayor Kasim Reed's decision to fire him.
"Who among us wants to live in a country where we can be subject to a charge of discrimination purely because of speculation based on views we've written in a book or on social media as part of our private capacity?" Weber asks.
He said he hopes the rallies continue.
"I think in this situation we really need to continue to rally behind the chief, let him know we're behind him, that this is a free speech battle that we cannot back down from because it will only get worse.
"I think people need to realize that and not be afraid. We should draw inspiration that people are rallying in the streets of Paris under death threats and say, 'Hey, we should stand with Chief Cochran. Even if people don’t like his views, we need to support his freedom to express them."
"Tolerance is a two-way street," said Theriot, of Alliance Defending Freedom. "That's what a federal appeals court said not long ago about public officials who claim to love diversity while only tolerating views they themselves favor. Chief Cochran served the city of Atlanta with distinction, both before and after his post with the Obama administration. The city fired him for nothing other than his faith, and that’s not constitutional. We are currently assessing the legal options available to vindicate his rights to free speech and freedom of religion."
'A warning to every American'
In a statement delivered through his attorneys at ADF, Cochran said he was "heartbroken" over the situation.
"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," said Cochran. "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?"
Cochran was named the Atlanta fire chief in 2008. He served in that position until 2009, when he accepted the position of fire administrator in the Obama administration. In 2010, he returned to Atlanta, and the city council unanimously confirmed him to serve once again as the city’s fire chief.
"The most baffling thing is that I had permission to write my book, and I was exonerated of discriminating against anyone," Cochran continued. "This happened to me, but it’s really not about me. It's a warning to every American that freedom of speech and freedom of religion are hanging by a thread, which will snap if we don’t fight to preserve these cherished protections."