For Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, terminating decorated Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran might have been a “heavy decision,” but it wasn’t a hard one.
A religious book written by the chief — “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” — has placed Atlanta “in the heart of a controversy,” Reed said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after last week’s firing. On the one side are those who view passages in the book as inflammatory and anti-gay. On the other are conservative Christians who say Cochran was exercising his religious freedom.
In the end, the mayor said, he had no choice: Cochran broke protocol. And instead of quelling controversy, he fed it.
Cochran’s dismissal, Reed knew, would bring massive repercussions, some of which are already playing out.
Those upset with Reed’s decision have flooded city in-boxes, some even describing the mayor as “Christaphobic” and as a “2 faced racist,” emails show. Many are phoning Reed’s office, as well as council members, with concerns of religious censorship. And on the same day that men stormed a French satirical magazine and killed 12 last week, conservative radio host Erick Erickson equated Cochran’s critics to anti-Christian terrorists, with Reed as their henchman.
The chief’s termination also is adding fuel to a familiar issue at the Gold Dome this session as lawmakers consider religious freedom bills.
Others, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups, have praised the mayor as wise to part with the chief. They say Cochran damaged his ability to lead the department when he wrote a religious guide for men that describes homosexuality as “unclean” and compares it to bestiality and pederasty.
In an emotionally charged press conference last week, the mayor stressed that he terminated Cochran because the chief didn’t have required clearance from City Hall to publish the book, disobeyed his request to not speak publicly during his suspension and has shown no “contrition” for the ensuing controversy.
An internal investigation found no evidence that he discriminated against employees.
“The bottom line is I hired Kelvin Cochran to prevent fires and put them out, not to be the center of one,” Reed said.
The fired Cochran told the AJC he believes he did nothing wrong. “I do feel I’ve been treated unfairly.”
The second-term mayor is famously allegiant to his people, summarizing his political mantra last year as: “Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty, and did I mention loyalty?”
Reed took heat for supporting former Atlanta City Councilman Lamar Willis’ 2013 re-election bid, even after the attorney was disbarred for ethical breaches.
The mayor rejected calls to fire a top aide who — during the fallout of the Braves’ announcement to move to Cobb County — proposed salacious team names such as “Cobb County Crackers.”
But the Cochran case is different.
Homosexuality “is next to the race issue in the City of Atlanta,” said Council C.T. Martin. “It’s the second ticking time bomb in our community.”
Among the controversial statements in the book, the chief wrote, “Since God made sex for procreation, he only intended it to be between a man and a woman.” Those who live without God’s purpose, he goes on, “pursue sexual fulfillment through multiple partners, with the opposite sex, same sex and sex outside of marriage and many other vile, vulgar and inappropriate ways.”
After employees complained, the mayor suspended Cochran and waited to see if the outrage would pass. But it didn’t.
The fire chief spoke publicly about the book several times, including once in December to the Georgia Baptist Convention. News outlets reported his remarks.
“I think the mayor must have been influenced to think I initiated that, and that’s not the case,” Cochran said of the news coverage.
Some of those comments spurred a group of conservative Christians — suburban whites and older African-Americans — to bombard Reed with demands to reinstate Cochran. And it furthered a very damaging perception that the mayor had punished Cochran for his faith.
Reed has said those appearances played a large role in his decision.
Cochran also became toxic to the mayor’s growing relationship with Atlanta’s LGBT community. In recent years, Reed has announced his support for same-sex marriage and been vocal in his commitment to anti-discrimination policies.
“When I made the decision to suspend him, I certainly was open to him returning to work at the City of Atlanta,” Reed said. “And his behavior in the interim certainly influenced the conclusion that I came to.”
Councilman Ivory Young said he advised Reed against firing the chief, whom Young has long supported. Many of his constituents see Cochran’s termination as a consequence of his faith, Young said. But Young believes it’s “less the book and more the breach in protocol.”
“It would be easy for some to turn this into a free speech issue. But, when we become elected and when we are charged with responsibility of representing all of Atlanta, there are many (opportunities) which we as elected officials and those with senior level cabinet positions are no longer afforded,” he said.
Councilman Alex Wan, who is openly gay, said Cochran’s book created a “difficult work environment” for LGBT employees. His dismissal “sends a strong message to employees about how much we value diversity and how we adhere to a non-discriminatory environment,” he said.
The chief said he never intended to offend with the book, which emerged from his Bible study lesson plans.
“It never crossed my mind. I guess I was so tunnel-visioned about seeing men read about their faith,” Cochran said. “It was not to vilify anybody.”
Despite his high-profile positions as former Mayor Shirley Franklin’s fire chief and President Barack Obama’s U.S. Fire Administrator, Cochran’s name has rarely appeared in local news. And, if firefighters have a complaint about Cochran, it’s about what some see as an overly cautious approach to firefighting.
Cochran said he was disappointed this week when Reed, who has publicly praised the chief for “adding value” to his team, refused to meet with him.
“I love Mayor Reed like a little brother. I was disheartened and hurt to see his anger,” Cochran said.
Cochran refutes assertions by both Reed and Ethics Officer Nina Hickson that he didn’t receive permission to write the book, in which he identified himself as the Atlanta fire chief.
He said he also gave a copy of the book to the mayor’s office when it was published.
Cochran said he doesn’t see himself as a “poster child” for religious liberty, but does believe in the need for greater religious freedom protections, he said.
“Even with faiths beyond Christianity, I think it is an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said. “Hopefully, this can be a catalyst to further action in that regard.”
The founder and president of the Loganville company that published Cochran’s book said Reed’s action and comments fly in the face of freedom of speech.
“Pretty soon you won’t be able to even carry a Bible because it might offend someone sitting next to you,” Myrna Lopez said. “How much power are we going to give the LGBT community? This [action] is not acceptable.”
David P. Gushee, a Christian ethics professor at Mercer University, said he would’ve advised Cochran against publishing his book while serving as fire chief, or to express his views differently.
“A lesson here is that space is closing in American public life for the most inflammatory language for expressing rejection of LGBT relationships,” Gushee said. “… When Christians continue to use that kind of language today, I believe we unintentionally do more harm than good to our Gospel witness.”
Emory political science professor Michael Leo Owens said that, despite the national debate sparked by Cochran’s firing, Reed had little to lose politically.
Even though many conservative black Christians are upset by the decision, “black folks aren’t turning out against a qualified black candidate on the issue of gay marriage,” he said. And white conservative Christians, “are already aligned against him on a whole host of issues because the majority are Republicans, so it doesn’t matter.”
Staff writers Bill Torpy, Shelia Poole and Todd Duncan contributed to this report.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
Nov. 24: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed places Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran on a one-month suspension without pay after employees complain that his 2013 religious book — distributed to some in the department — contained passages that critics say are anti-gay. Cochran is also ordered to attend sensitivity training.
Dec. 9: Cochran addresses the executive committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention in Duluth.
Dec. 16: The GBC posts a call to supporters to contact Reed with complaints over the punishment.
Jan. 6: Reed holds a press conference to announce Cochran’s dismissal, the same day the chief returns from his suspension.