Why the Firing of Atlanta's Fire Chief Is Inspiring 'Religious Liberty' Bills

In 2014, in the midst of a slew of lawsuits cropping up over whether businesses could refuse to bake cakes or provide flowers for same-sex weddings for religious reasons, a group of Georgia lawmakers proposed a religious freedom act in the state legislature. The measure failed, largely due to pressure from the business community.

This legislative session, the theme of religious freedom has reared its head again, this time for a different reason -- the firing of Atlanta's Fire Rescue Department Chief Kelvin Cochran over a book Cochran wrote in which he makes his views on homosexuality and adultery known.

Cochran has since become what one local columnist calls "the face of 'religious liberty' bills":

Last month, Cochran was brought before the executive committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention, the state’s largest denomination and a supporter of a religious liberty bill already on file in the House. Cochran was greeted as a hero, though his appearance, while a formal city investigation was underway, made him no new friends at City Hall.

The Georgia Baptist website has put audio excerpts of Cochran’s speech online, as well as a sales link to his book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” at Amazon.com. A Georgia Baptist online petition in support of Cochran now has 4,452 signatures.

But supporters of the bill currently before the legislature argue that a religious freedom act is about more than one man -- it's about protecting the rights of people of faith in an era in which those rights are increasingly precious.

Opponents argue this legislation is unnecessary, that religious freedom is well protected by the First Amendment. But in 1990, the Supreme Court limited that protection, which was the very reason Congress passed the federal RFRA. That law restored the protection Americans had enjoyed for decades before the unfortunate Supreme Court decision. Many states have followed suit to ensure religious freedom is similarly guarded against state and local assaults.

Opponents also deny faith-based speech and activities are ever disfavored in Georgia. But students of faith at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and other universities would disagree. Christian student organizations at Georgia universities and public schools have been denied the recognition and funding routinely granted to non-religious student organizations. Tech prohibited students from engaging in “intolerant” faith-based speech. At Savannah State, a Christian student club was expelled from campus for “hazing.” The offense? Engaging in a foot-washing ceremony at a discipleship retreat.

Though many examples of discrimination against faith-based activity arise in the context of public schools and universities, the problem isn’t restricted to academia. In DeKalb County, a church that had been renting a recreation center for weekly services was suddenly told it was no longer welcome, pursuant to a new (unwritten) policy against renting the center to churches. A Christian in Pine Mountain was prohibited from placing free Bibles in a library that allowed distribution of other community materials. Rockdale County required churches — alone among all other organizations — to have at least three acres of land. In case after case, people of faith have been singled out for more burdensome treatment.

A group of pastors, rabbis, and other people of faith have stepped out to oppose the measure, as have the same corporate interests who helped defeat the bill last year.

Critics say its passage, regardless of Teasley’s intentions, would open the door for private business owners to discriminate against gays and other minorities — by citing religious beliefs — and make the Peach State a national laughingstock and economic pariah.

It's early in the legislative session, and it remains to be seen whether the bill has enough support to pass this year. Stay tuned, and we'll see what happens under the Gold Dome.

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Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock / f11photo