Atlanta is burning: A new and ominous threat to religious liberty

(RNS) One day Atlanta has a fire chief; the next day it doesn’t. Once again, a moral scandal takes down a public official.

What was the scandal involving Chief Kelvin Cochran? He holds to views that Mayor Kasim Reed, among others, find out of bounds.

The facts in the case are now clear: Reed fired Cochran for what the mayor called “bad judgment” in writing a book in which Cochran asserted the sinfulness of homosexuality, and then sharing a copy of the book with three city employees.

The former chief is not accused of discriminating against any employee or citizen. Some are now claiming that this fact shouldn’t even matter, and that merely believing what Cochran believes is enough to disqualify him — or anyone else — from public office.

This is the new demand of modernity: Surrender to the moral revolution or keep your mouth shut.

Believing what the Christian church has held for two millennia (and most Christians around the world still believe) is now a disqualification from public office.

Cochran is a member of a Southern Baptist church, but the Roman Catholic Church also officially teaches that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and sinful. Does this mean that no Southern Baptists and no Roman Catholics who hold to the official teaching of their churches can now serve as Atlanta’s fire chief?

A new illiberal spirit threatens our most basic liberties, reducing the First Amendment’s protection of free religious exercise to the confines of our homes and our churches, or our minds. If you vocalize your religious beliefs in public, as Chief Cochran did, you can soon be out of a job.

Mayor Reed explicitly cited the chief’s religious views when he said that Cochran’s views were “inconsistent with the administration’s work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all of her citizens — regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race and religious beliefs.”

But not Chief Cochran’s religious beliefs, evidently.

Amazingly, Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan went even further: “I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, but when you’re a city employee and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”

The city of Atlanta now has an official theological position on the sinfulness of homosexuality? May God help us.

It is hard to imagine that Councilman Wan, or Mayor Reed for that matter, would make such statements in virtually any other context. A city leader cannot disagree with the “thoughts, beliefs and opinions” of the city of Atlanta? How can public officials make such statements with a straight face?

In 1981, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger reminded the nation that “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”

Yet now it seems that at least some major public officials are ready to redefine the First Amendment to exclude views they do not share or even reject. The First Amendment’s protections of speech and religious expression, however, were not designed to protect popular beliefs.

What comes next? Should we now expect this new illiberalism to subject citizens to interrogation on the basis of religious beliefs or church membership? Are agents of the city of Atlanta going to examine the religious beliefs of city employees as they arrive at work? Limiting religious beliefs to the confinements of heart, home and house of worship is tyranny masquerading as tolerance.

The First Amendment protects one’s religious belief — and also the speech that communicates such beliefs. Our world lacks diversity, not to mention courage and compassion, when freedom of speech is one-sided. Only when the freedom of speech is unfettered can we give voice to the causes that animate our souls. Because of free speech, we are able to understand our differences and, out of those differences, find unity — or, as the Founding Fathers put it: “E pluribus unum — out of many, one.” Unity is not uniformity.

Modern advocates of tolerance and the new erotic liberty may not find some religious beliefs to be “acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible,” but the First Amendment protects those beliefs nonetheless.

If one’s religious beliefs are to be punished with (among other things) loss of employment, we need not possess a vivid imagination to guess where such logic may lead. Why would the front lines of the battle over free speech and religious liberty stop at the door of one’s house of worship if they will not stop at the beliefs of an individual?

The First Amendment does protect religious beliefs — especially when one is at work or in the public square. The question is: Will we as a nation yield to this new and ominous attack on religious liberty, or will we mean what we say when we affirm the First Amendment?

This question reaches far beyond Chief Cochran and the city of Atlanta. The news out of Georgia is a signal to the entire nation that we are all in danger of losing our liberties — fast.

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