At Religious Liberty Hearing, Democrats Unlikely Backers of Atlanta Fire Chief
Kelsey Bolar /
The story of the former Atlanta fire chief who was fired from his job after publishing a book that addressed marriage and sexuality from a biblical perspective took center stage at a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill, with witnesses from both sides of the aisle voicing disapproval of the city’s decision to terminate the decorated public servant.
“I wish we had a bill to protect him,” former Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat who represented Massachusetts’ 4th District, said of Chief Kelvin Cochran.
Cochran, the former fire chief in Atlanta, was fired from his job on Jan. 6, 2015, even after a city investigation cleared him of any discrimination charges against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.
“No one should be fired because of his or her political or religious beliefs that don’t have to do with the job,” Frank said.
The remaining two Democrat witnesses—one of whom was Jim Obergefell, the leading plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s gay marriage case—appeared to agree with the former Massachusetts congressman’s opinion about Cochran. When they were asked to raise their hands if they believed he should have been fired for publishing a book that included his views on marriage and sexuality, no one did.
Despite their support for Cochran, none of the Democrat witnesses, including Frank, went so far as to support the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill that would help protect the religious liberty of Americans with traditional views on marriage.
“This is personal,” Frank, who is openly gay, told Republicans of the bill. “This bill empowers people to take my tax money and do things to exclude me and others like me.”
Cochran testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday for a hearing involving legislation that would protect individuals and organizations who believe in the biblical view of marriage between one man and one woman.
FADA would not apply to Cochran’s case because he worked for the state instead of the federal government at the time he was fired.
However, Cochran told members of Congress that had he worked for the federal government when he published his men’s devotional book, he “would certainly be terminated from employment,” and therefore would depend on legislation such as FADA. Because of that—as the former U.S. fire administrator in the Obama administration—Cochran said he has a personal stake in seeing FADA become law.
“It is my desire to see legislation at the federal, state, and local levels that would protect any American [from being punished] in spite of or because of their belief about marriage and sexuality,” Cochran said.
FADA is limited in its scope, and would not generally apply to private businesses, such as the bakery run by Aaron and Melissa Klein who were ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. However, the measure could affect private businesses who are recipients of federal contracts or grants, licenses or tax benefits, by preventing the government from taking adverse actions against them for holding traditional views about marriage.
Obergefell and Katherine Franke, a professor at Columbia School of Law, strongly opposed the idea of providing specific protections for individuals and organizations that hold views against same-sex marriage.
“I understand that the proponents of this legislation argue that it is necessary to protect churches, clergy, and others who oppose marriage equality for religious reasons,” Obergefell said. “But the First Amendment is already clear on this point. Since the founding of this country, no church or member of the clergy has been forced to marry any couple if doing so would violate their religious teachings. That has not changed since same-sex couples won the freedom to marry.”
Instead, in order to address Cochran’s termination, Frank suggested passing a bill that doesn’t “single out” the issue of same-sex marriage.
“How do you protect him?” Frank asked. “You pass a bill that says no one can be fired because of his or her political or religious opinion that is wholly irrelevant to the job. You don’t single out one particular aspect of one particular religion.”
Democrats didn’t only attack the nature of Tuesday’s hearing, but also, the timing.
“Today is the one-month anniversary of the deadly shooting spree at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people and injured dozens others,” Ranking Member Elijah Cummings said during his opening statement. “To say this hearing is ill-timed is the understatement of the year.”
Much of the hearing focused on the real-life implications of FADA, and whether the legislation would enable what Democrats called, “taxpayer-funded discrimination.” According to their witnesses’ interpretation of the bill, FADA would allow nonprofits that receive federal grants to build low-income housing to deny same-sex couples access to that housing, for example.
Republican witnesses, including Kristen Waggoner from Alliance Defending Freedom and Matthew J. Franck from The Witherspoon Institute, swore under oath that FADA could not be used for such purposes.
Waggoner accused Democrats of “mischaracterizing” the bill. “It does not allow termination of employees, it does not change existing law,” Waggoner said. “The rights that you have, you would continue to have under federal and state law.”
“No one deserves to be marginalized or driven out of their profession simply because of their beliefs about marriage,” she added.
On Tuesday, Republicans released an updated version of the FADA text. In the new version, for-profit religious broadcasters would also be covered and be protected from having their licenses threatened from the Federal Communications Commission for their belief in marriage between one man and one woman.
At the end of the hearing, both Democrat and Republican witnesses agreed to meet privately with Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to work out the different interpretations of the bill.
The quote from Kristen Waggoner about what the First Amendment Defense Act bill would not do has been corrected.