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Tamar Hallerman

Ex-Atlanta fire chief the GOP darling of Congress’ ‘religious liberty’ debate

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Ousted fire chief Kelvin Cochran talks at a press conference after learning of his termination. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Ousted fire chief Kelvin Cochran in 2015 after learning of his termination. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

WASHINGTON — There was no question who the GOP’s star witness was during a hearing today on Capitol Hill over federal ‘religious liberty’ legislation.

Kelvin Cochran, the Atlanta fire chief ousted last year after publishing a book that described homosexuality as a perversion akin to bestiality, was front and center at a congressional hearing on Thursday in which he urged lawmakers to pass the First Amendment Defense Act, or FADA. Cochran said the legislation would protect federal employees from being fired for their beliefs, which he alleges is what the city of Atlanta did to him last year.

FADA “would ensure that no federal employee who expresses their belief about marriage on their own time would face discrimination by the government and face the punishments that punishment I have endured,” Cochran told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Please pass this law and make sure we’re truly tolerant.”

Cochran in his testimony recounted his life story, describing how he rose from an impoverished childhood in Shreveport, La., in the 1960s and faced widespread discrimination as a young fireman, eventually rising through the ranks to become Atlanta fire chief and President Barack Obama’s appointee for U.S. fire administrator in 2009.

Ousted Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran, second from left, testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill on July 12, 2016. Tamar Hallerman/AJC.

Ousted Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran, second from left, testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill on July 12, 2016. Tamar Hallerman/AJC.

He said he was wrongfully discriminated against by the City for expressing his Christian beliefs when they fired him in January 2015 and that he did nothing wrong . He said Atlanta’s investigation into his tenure did not find any evidence that he discriminated against any LGBT people.

Here’s Mayor Kasim Reed’s side of the story, from our coverage last year: 

A clearly agitated Mayor Kasim Reed said he decided to terminate Cochran not just because the fire chief didn’t consult him before publishing the 2013 book, but because Cochran spoke out about his suspension, despite being told to withhold public comment during an investigation into his leadership.

Reed said the firing had nothing to do with Cochran’s faith: “His religious decisions are not the basis of the problem. His judgment is the basis of the problem.”

Republican members of the committee lauded Cochran as a hero who was wrongfully treated, and several honed in on a statement from Atlanta City Council Member Alex Wan in which he said city employees “have to check (their religious beliefs and opinions) at the door.”

“That’s why we’re having this hearing, that’s why this legislation needs to pass,” said Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, a member of the committee who also leads the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus. “That’s why people like Mr. Cochran are heroes, for his whole life experience and certainly for standing up for the fact that you don’t have to check your religious beliefs at the door.”

Democrats said FADA would sanction discrimination against gay people, single mothers and unmarried couples and that it would not have helped Cochran’s case should it have been on the books. They drew parallels to the arguments used in favor of segregation decades ago and also called out the Republican leaders of the committee for holding a hearing on the bill one month after a gunman fatally shot 49 people at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando.

“To say that this hearing is ill-timed is the understatement of the year,” said Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat.

He continued, “The paramount lesson we have learned over our nation’s history is that if we are separate, we will never be equal. That is the lesson we should be reinforcing across our country every single day — especially now — and that is the lesson I hope our committee takes to heart today.”

All 10 GOP congressmen from Georgia have signed on as co-sponsors of FADA. Ditto for Johnny Isakson and David Perdue in the Senate. Given the tight congressional calendar, the legislation is unlikely to advance before the fall.

Read Cochran’s prepared remarks here.

Read some of our coverage of Cochran’s ouster here:

Reed terminates fire chief following book controversy

Ex-Atlanta fire chief files discrimination complaint against City

Cochran controversy takes new turn as U.S. Reps weigh in

Embattled fire chief, city meet in first court hearing