Yesterday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard testimony on the First Amendment Defense Act, a piece of legislation that ensures Americans do not suffer discrimination at the hands of the federal government simply for peacefully living and working consistently with their belief about marriage.
During the hearing, former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran testified in favor of the proposed law. He shared his testimony on how the City of Atlanta fired him after he wrote on his own time a book about his faith in which he mentioned the biblical understanding of marriage—even though an investigation found no evidence that he discriminated against anyone.
Chief Cochran was not terminated because of something he did; the City of Atlanta fired him for stating his beliefs.
Chief Cochran is no stranger to persevering though adversity and discrimination. Born in the South into extreme poverty, he knew from a young age that he wanted more out of life. When he was five years old, he watched firemen fight a fire that started in his neighbor’s house and decided then that he wanted to be a firefighter. He got his start as one of the first African American firefighters in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana and worked his way up the ranks.
But “the ranks” didn’t come without a price. Because of the color of his skin, Kelvin faced discrimination inside the firehouse.
When cleaning up after dinner, Chief Cochran’s white supervisor would stand over his shoulder as he washed the dishes (black men had separate dishes) to make sure that the water was scalding hot and would clean away any [black] germs.
He was made to sleep in a designated “black only bed” each night he was at the firehouse.
And, he faced a barrage of racial slurs.
His experience of enduring discrimination inspired a personal promise that if he were ever in a position of authority, he would create an environment of justice and equality. He wanted to ensure that no one faced the type of discrimination he experienced as a young African-American firefighter.
And, when he eventually became fire chief, Chief Cochran did just that. For instance, together with representatives from every people group within the Atlanta Fire Department, Chief Cochran created the Atlanta Fire Rescue Doctrine to establish a culture of fairness and equity.
In fact, Chief Cochran’s leadership was so highly esteemed that President Obama appointed him in 2009 as the U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration, the highest fire office in the nation, and in 2012, he was nationally recognized as Fire Chief of the Year.
Even with Chief Cochran’s distinguished career and zero evidence that he ever engaged in discrimination, the City of Atlanta fired Chief Cochran because it disagreed with his religious views about marriage.
So, here’s my question: Why... why... would the City fire a man who made Atlanta a safer place for all its citizens and who worked tirelessly to ensure that the Atlanta Fire department was a welcoming, inclusive place to work?
As Chief Cochran noted in his , "The actions by the City of Atlanta do not reflect American values. The real test of liberty is what happens when citizens disagree on important issues. By terminating me because of my beliefs, the City failed to reflect the true tolerance and diversity that has always set America apart. Instead, the City labeled as outcasts the many diverse people-from Christians to Jews to Muslims-who express their faith's longstanding teachings on marriage."
America is at a crossroads. We need to decide what kind of society we want to be. Do we want to live in a world where a decorated public servant loses his job because of his faith or where people celebrate true diversity—including different views about marriage?
Laws like the First Amendment Defense Act would protect individuals and organizations that maintain a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction about marriage from unfair government treatment. All Americans should be free to live out their core convictions, and this bill ensures that their freedom to do so is protected.