The First Responder and the First Amendment

Former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran (Alliance Defending Freedom)
This firefighter is glad to carry a torch for religious freedom.

It’s now been ten years since I was first approached by Atlanta officials to be their city’s fire chief. Soon after, President Barack Obama asked me to leave Atlanta, to serve as U.S. fire administrator, the highest job a firefighter can have in this country.

I was only a few months into that job when then-mayor Kasim Reed personally asked me to come back to the great city of Atlanta. He must have seen something he believed in. I know I did. I was honored to be asked back and delighted to return.

It’s been five years since I wrote the book that caused all the trouble — on my own time, and at my own expense. I wrote it to outline my personal faith, as what I hoped would be an encouragement to the men of my church and a few close friends. As a courtesy, I asked our city ethics officer if there would be any problem. She assured me there wouldn’t. She was wrong.

A few friends at work (including the mayor) learned of the book and asked for copies. But nearly another year passed before anyone suggested that some things I’d written — about God’s design for marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman — might be a problem.

The fat soon hit the fire: an abrupt 30-day suspension, an intense investigation. The probe revealed that I’d never shown the slightest hint of discrimination against LGBT persons, either in my department or in the larger community. In fact, there was no evidence I’d discriminated against anyone in my entire 35-year career as a firefighter.

What the evidence did show was that I had done my job with excellence and professionalism. The city fired me anyway. Not for anything I’d done wrong . . . but because not everyone shared my biblical point of view.

After negotiations with my Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, the city council voted on October 15 to pay me damages and refund my legal costs. What that makes clear is that no one should be fired and denied their salary and then have to go to court to defend the exercise of their most basic First Amendment freedoms. I believe many people in Atlanta can understand that.

It’s wrong to punish an accomplished professional simply because some people disagree with him. If unanimity were the standard for holding public office, who could ever serve?

It’s wrong to punish a man for putting his views into writing. That’s why the city said they fired me — because I wrote and published a book (again, on my own time and dime). It was a book they gave me permission to write, but more than that, it was a book the Constitution gives me permission to write.

It’s wrong to tell a person of faith that he can’t bring that faith into the public square, that his deepest beliefs — the very beliefs that have inspired his unswerving professionalism — must remain at home, under lock and key, so no one else ever sees them. No person should have to choose between his job and his faith.

All of those wrongs injured my career and reputation, but more than the injuries, I was pained by the insult: the insult that assumed that a man who has experienced so much discrimination himself . . . who determined early on, at his mother’s knee, not to inflict that kind of pain on anyone else . . . who has established, across more than three decades, a reputation for fairness, decency, and respect toward all those he’s worked with . . . would suddenly decide to use his faith as an excuse for hating people different from himself.

That’s not — that never has been — who I am. Real Christians don’t hate people — not even people who’ve forced them out of their chosen profession and publicly sullied their good name. So I bear no animosity toward the city officials of Atlanta. I’m just glad that the court saw the city’s error and set a precedent that I hope will help other public servants around the country who want nothing more than to live out their faith conscientiously even as they do their jobs effectively.

If this decision brings them — brings all Americans — a little more freedom of religion and free speech, it’s worth the fire this firefighter has walked through.

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