The battle for religious freedom protections is heating up, worrying critics who believe the movement could stifle the civil rights of LGBT Americans.
The latest development: An ousted Atlanta fire chief, who was dismissed after distributing a self-published book in the workplace that included anti-gay views, has sued the city for violating his constitutional rights to free speech, free exercise, freedom of association, equal protection, freedom from religious hostility, and due process. It comes amid a wave of legislation modeled after Arizona’s contentious Senate Bill 1062, a measure that would’ve made it easier for businesses to turn away gays and lesbians on religious grounds. Gov. Jan Brewer was forced to veto that bill last year after it sparked a national outcry.
Filed Wednesday with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, the new 54-page lawsuit alleges that Atlanta’s Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed violated the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments when he decided to remove former Fire Rescue Chief Kelvin Cochran from his post in January. Last year, Cochran, an Evangelical Christian, wrote and distributed to some of his subordinates a self-published book entitled, “Who Told You You Were Naked,” which characterized homosexual acts as “vile, vulgar and inappropriate” -- akin to “bestiality.”
“They fired him for one thing. And that is, he held the wrong beliefs according to the city,” said Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is providing legal counsel to Cochran, in a taped statement released Wednesday. The group has also filed a separate administrative complaint on behalf of Cochran with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“The very faith that caused me to get my job ultimately has cost me my job,” said Cochran in an accompanying statement.
Mayor Reed, however, disputes the allegations that he fired Cochran for his religious beliefs, and maintains the decision was based on the fact that the former fire chief did not receive proper approval from the city to write his book. (Cochran says he did receive permission.) The mayor also said that during Cochran’s initial 30-day suspension, which was instituted last fall, the former fire chief spoke publicly about the matter against the mayor’s wishes -- another factor that led to his dismissal.
“The religious nature of [Cochran’s] book is not the reason he is no longer employed by the City of Atlanta,” said Reed’s spokesperson in a statement. “The totality of his conduct -- including the way he handled himself during his suspension after he agreed not to make public comments during the investigation -- reflected poor judgment and failure to follow clearly defined work protocols.”
“The City will vigorously defend its actions in any legal proceedings brought by Mr. Cochran,” the statement continued, “and is confident that the decision to terminate Mr. Cochran was both the right thing to do and fully legal.”
Wednesday’s lawsuit comes amid a growing standoff between two movements: One pushing for LGBT equality, the other for religious freedom. As more states and municipalities enact new rights and protections for their LGBT citizens -- chiefly in the form of marriage equality and nondiscrimination laws -- many Christian conservatives worry they’ll be forced to betray their religious beliefs, which, as in Cochran’s case, tend to categorize homosexuality as sinful.
To protect people from having to, say, issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, or bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding, nearly 20 states have proposed measures that in many cases would carve out exemptions within existing nondiscrimination or marriage equality laws for people with religious objections to homosexuality. So-called “religious freedom” legislation is currently moving forward in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and Cochran's home state of Georgia, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been tracking the issue.
Religious freedom critics warn that these measures would essentially function as a license to discriminate against LGBT people -- sometimes, at the expense of their health and well-being. In Michigan, for example, a lesbian couple is currently generating headlines for their experience with a religious doctor who refused to treat their baby.
The ADF has participated in several lawsuits similar to Cochran’s where the group has argued on behalf of religious freedom. Those efforts proved successful in last year’s Hobby Lobby suit, in which the Supreme Court ruled that closely-held corporations wouldn’t have to cover the cost of birth control for their employees if doing so violated the owners’ religious beliefs. But the group has seen less success on the LGBT front. So far, they’ve lost in New Mexico, where they represented a photographer who refused to take pictures at a same-sex marriage ceremony; in Vermont, where they represented an inn that refused to host a same-sex couple’s wedding reception; and most recently, in Washington, where they represented a florist who refused to work with a same-sex couple for their wedding. That florist, a state judge ruled on Wednesday, could not use religion as an excuse to defy Washington’s nondiscrimination laws.
Each of those states had laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But a majority of states, including Georgia, do not. Atlanta is in fact the only city in the state with nondiscrimination protections for its LGBT employees, something that could hurt Cochran as he pursues legal action against the city.