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Fire chief's dismissal over anti-gay book sparks religious freedom showdown

A controversy is currently unfolding over the dismissal of an Atlanta fire chief, who last year wrote and distributed a book that espoused anti-gay views.

For those anxiously awaiting the nation’s next religious freedom showdown, look no further than Atlanta, where a growing controversy is currently unfolding over the recent dismissal of Fire Rescue Chief Kelvin Cochran, who last year wrote and distributed a self-published book that espoused anti-gay views.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed says he fired Cochran last week for exhibiting poor judgment and insubordination during an initial 30-day suspension over the former chief’s book, "Who Told You You Were Naked.” In the book, Cochran condemns homosexual acts as “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.”

An internal investigation found that Cochran did not get the proper approval to write the book in the first place -- something he disputes -- and then talked publicly about his suspension against the mayor’s wishes. The probe also found that while Cochran did not treat LGBT employees unfairly during his tenure, “there was a consistent sentiment among the witnesses that firefighters throughout the organization [were] appalled by the sentiments expressed in the book.”

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Cochran, however, believes he was fired purely because of his religious beliefs. Now, as Georgia lawmakers consider for the second year in a row whether to pass a controversial “religious freedom” measure that critics say will open the door to broad discrimination, his case is becoming the epicenter of an intensifying stand-off between Christian conservatives and LGBT equality advocates.

“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,” Cochran said in a statement released by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the conservative legal group that successfully challenged the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate in last year’s Hobby Lobby suit. Greg Scott, vice president of communications at ADF, said in an email to msnbc that the group was currently assessing Cochran’s legal options “to vindicate his right to free speech.”

A powerful southern Democrat, Mayor Reed defended his decision to fire Cochran Tuesday, saying in a statement it had nothing to do with the former chief’s religious beliefs. Rather, he said, the decision was based in large part on the fact that Cochran did not get approval from the Board of Ethics or the mayor’s office prior to writing the book.

“I believe his actions, decisions, and lack of judgment undermined his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse workforce,” said Reed. “Every single City of Atlanta employee deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide our employment decisions. His actions and his statements during the investigation and his suspension eroded my confidence in his ability to serve as a member of my senior leadership team.”

The union, Atlanta Professional Firefighters Local 134, praised Reed’s decision and called on the administration to go further by adding an LGBT liaison for the fire department. Likewise, The New York Times editorial board said that the mayor was in the right.

“Nobody can tell Mr. Cochran what he can or cannot believe,” the paper said in an editorial published Tuesday. “If he wants to work as a public official, however, he may not foist his religious views on other city employees who have the right to a boss who does not speak of them as second-class citizens.”

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But not everyone was happy with the outcome. Hundreds of Cochran’s supporters flooded the rotunda of the Georgia Capitol Tuesday, and then marched on to Reed’s office. There, they left tens of thousands of petitions calling for the former chief’s reinstatement. Leaders of several conservative groups have also rallied around Cochran in the days since his termination -- including the Faith & Freedom Coalition, the Family Research Council, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Georgia Baptist Convention -- all arguing that he was discriminated against on the basis of his religion.

“The LGBT community wants us to be afraid of expressing our Christian beliefs,” Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said in a statement. “They want us to cower in the face of their threats to the livelihoods of believers. But we shouldn’t back down!”

"It’s about when you bring those beliefs into the workplace."'

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- one of the crowning achievements of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was born in Atlanta -- prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin and religion. But no nationwide protections exist for LGBT employees. Georgia is actually one of 29 states where it is perfectly legal to discriminate in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Atlanta, however, is the only city in the state with nondiscrimination protections for its LGBT employees.

Equality advocates say that based off the findings of Mayor Reed’s investigation, which revealed that Cochran distributed his book to at least nine people in the workplace, the former chief clearly created a hostile work environment for LGBT employees in his 750-member department, and may have violated the city’s nondiscrimination policies in the process.

“I think if you look at the facts, and that the firefighters unions made a firm statement in support of the mayor, that is evidence that Chief Cochran did create an environment where people were concerned that they were going to be judged not on their ability to be firefighters, but on who they are and who they love,” Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, told msnbc. “It is not uncommon for someone who is such a high-ranking appointed official to go through a special process before they publish something, or to have to make sure their views are consistent with the views of the municipality.”

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The growing outcry over Cochran’s firing is breathing new life into the effort to pass a controversial religious freedom measure in Georgia, similar to one that passed the Arizona legislature last year and sparked a nationwide backlash. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer ended up vetoing that bill. Proponents say such measures provide necessary protections for religious people who do not want to have to cater to the gay community as they win hard-fought victories, like marriage equality. But critics say the bills would essentially serve as a license to discriminate for any business owner or government official.

Republican state Sen. Josh McKoon, who could not be reached for comment on this article, said last fall he would reintroduce another “religious freedom” bill this January. Similar legislation is pending in Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina and Texas. After toppling same-sex marriage bans in 36 states, many LGBT advocates view the religious freedom movement as the next front in the fight for full equality.

“It shouldn’t be lost that there is an absolute freedom to believe what you believe in,” Beth Littrell, a senior lawyer in the southern regional office of Lambda Legal, told msnbc. “In this situation with the mayor and the fire chief, as far as I understand it, that freedom hasn’t been violated.”

The question here, she continued, is “whether you have a right to act on those beliefs in a way that violates the rights of others … It’s about when you bring those beliefs into the workplace.”