When Bigots Hide Behind Religious Freedom

Kelvin Cochran, the former Atlanta fire chief.

When Bigots Hide Behind Religious Freedom

On January 6, a day before the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fired Kelvin Cochran as fire chief and boss of 1,000 employees. Evangelicals have accused the mayor of firing the chief for his religious beliefs, which happen to be virulently anti-gay. Cochran details those beliefs in a book, which he distributed to staffers at work, and which link homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia, a falsehood no less offensive than if Cochran was distributing the anti-Semitic libels of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

But somehow in this country we have developed a double standard for bigotry. It's not OK to be a racist or a misogynist or an anti-Semite anymore, at least not openly. But it's perfectly OK to discriminate against homosexuals, because, that latter-day brand of bigots claim, the Bible approves. The Bible of course in its more regressive parts also justifies the subjugation of women, the stoning of adulterers, the enslavement of foreigners and the selling of girls as sex slaves. But as adults in a relatively evolved civilization we've learned not to tolerate those beliefs in whatever form. We're even fighting wars against extremists--among them throat-slashing terrorists--who do. Yet some of us, like Kelvin Cochran, see no contradiction in carving out loving exceptions for anti-gay bigotry and calling it, of all things, Christian.

"The reality," wrote Todd Starnes, a columnist for Fox News and other reactionary organs, "is that a good man - a husband and father and grandfather--was fired from his job because his boss objected to his religious beliefs. That just ought not to happen in the United States."

I'm not sure what being a father and grandfather has to do with absolving you from being a bigot, though we often see these meaningless attributes appended to a person's profile when they turn out to be off the wall: so and so is a veteran, so and so is a business owner, so and so has been married to his lovely spouse for 30 years. So what? None of those resume bullets are marks of virtue anymore than blue eyes or frizzy hair. David Duke was once married too, he has children and grandchildren. That doesn't make him less of a white supremacist and an altogether distasteful human being.

But there's a greater error in Starnes's statement that Cochran was fired "because his boss objected to his religious belief." That's not just an error. It's a gross misrepresentation of Mayor Reed's decision. Cochran is free to have whatever beliefs and discriminations he chooses. He is free to peddle them in his book, on Amazon, at his church, in his private circles. He is not free to peddle his discriminatory beliefs at work. No public servant is, anymore than any public servant is free to, say, campaign for a political candidate or advocate for or against abortion rights at work. But that's what Cochran was doing even as he claimed that he never discriminated against gays or lesbians.

Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and agree that he never discriminated. I wonder what the so-called religious community would have made of a fire chief who, even in his private life (though there's nothing private about a book meant to be sold and distributed as widely as possible) advocated for whites-only members at a country club (or in Cochran's case, blacks only). Or one who is a Holocaust-denier. Or one who thinks, as Christians did for three centuries in this country, and with genocidal zeal in Georgia, that the Bible justifies the enslavement of blacks. That fire chief would have been run out of town faster than you can light a match, and justifiably so.

What difference then is there between a bigot who targets Jews or blacks and one who targets homosexuals? None, except that for whatever reason, homosexuals are still considered fair game for attacks, and those attacks are considered immune from the charge of bigotry. That's been the religious right's latest strategy of defending its prejudices: brandishing claims to free speech with one side of the mouth and claims of religious freedom with the other.

That's been the argument of people who oppose gay marriage. It's been the argument of religious organizations or businesses that refuse to offer contraception in their health plans. They may be justifying their prohibitions under the guise of religious expression. But they're doing so at the expense of others' liberties. It's the opposite intent of the Bill of Rights, and it's why the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision was fundamentally wrong, if strict construction of the Constitution is your game: just because you own a company doesn't mean you own the people who work for you, or have the right to impose your beliefs on them.

The table-turning goes further. The civil rights era was all about the expansion of rights and equality--to blacks, to women, to all minorities. When was that principle replaced by the restriction of rights, and when has the Bible become a how-to manual of American law?

The answer, unfortunately, is in a mutation of the First Amendment into a Trojan horse of intolerance. I hear it all the time: "Don't call me a bigot just because my religious beliefs are different than yours." Actually, I don't care about your religious beliefs as long as you don't cram them down my throat in the form of laws and prohibitions. You can believe all you like that the planet was created 6,000 years ago and that unicorns only run to virgins. Believe me, nobody cares, as long as those beliefs aren't imposed where they have no place: in law, in public schools, in the workplace.

But yes, I will call you a bigot if you take your religious beliefs to mean that any class of people is deserving of fewer rights than you, or less dignity than you, or less equality than you. That is exactly the definition of bigotry. And that's the difference between, for example, a homosexual looking for the equal right to marry--which doesn't in any way affect anyone else's right to marry or any church's definition of marriage--and a bigot looking to prohibit that homosexual from exercising his or her right to marriage. Couching the discrimination in religious belief doesn't make it less so. It makes you more hypocritical, a religious opportunist with nothing left in his arsenal than the cherry-picking of scriptures to demean others.

The world is still reeling from the attacks on Charlie Hebdo over its freedom to speak its mind. No one would dare claim that prohibiting or in any way constraining that freedom in the name of anyone's religious rights has any place in our world. And yet how easy it still is for America's evangelical brigades to hide behind the veil of religious freedom even as they seek to curtail and debase the freedom of others. Try as you may, the jig is up.

© 2023 Pierre Tristam