Monday, January 12, 2015

Is Atlanta Effectively Barring Conservative Evangelical Christians from Managerial Jobs?

On January 6, the New York Times published an article in which it was reported that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had fired Kelvin Cochran, the chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. The firing was a response (so Mayor Reed said) to Mr. Cochran's having distributed copies of a book he had written to several members of the department who had not asked for it, and who objected to the book's characterization of sexual activity between people of the same gender as "vile, vulgar, and inappropriate." The mayor said that he believed that Mr. Cochran's "actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse work force.” The mayor added that “every single employee under the fire chief’s command deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions.”

Mr Cochran responded that no-one received the book who had not been personally identified to him as an evangelical Christian. It is not at all clear, though, that even if Mr. Cochran had only given his book to those who shared his views that it really would have made any difference at all in the outcome. That is to say, Mr. Cochran was fired, not because he gave copies of his book to people who didn't want it, but because Mr. Cochran's public condemnation of homosexuality was seen as implying his inability to be perceived by all employees as a fair manager. In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter whether Mr. Cochran's views were expressed in a book, made in a speech, expressed in a blog, or communicated in some other way.The real reason for Mr. Cochran's firing was that, in light of the fact that he sincerely believes that homosexual activity to be immoral and "vile," his continued employment by the city of Atlanta would be perceived by many as an endorsement (or at least a non-repudiation) of his beliefs.

One might be tempted to write this case off as another minor skirmish in the culture wars of the modern United States. It would be a mistake to do so. I am not sure if Mr. Cochran will pursue his case in court (I hope he does), but if he does, his case highlights an issue which everyone who cares about the freedoms of speech and of the free exercise of religion ought to care about. This issue is the fact that Mr Cochran was not fired for actually violating the rights of any of his employees. He was fired on the basis of his views alone. That is, he was fired because his religious views in and of themselves, without regard to any action arising out of them, was judged sufficient basis for his disqualification from the office of fire chief.

Regardless of the opinion one might hold with regard to Mr. Cochran's beliefs, as a matter of law, the case of his firing is significant since it represents a departure from the legal standard which has been in place ever since the finding of the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. United States 98 U.S. 145 (1878). In Reynolds, the Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion so long as religious beliefs do not result in actions which actually contravene relevant national law. Later, in Cantwell v. Connecticut 310 U.S. 296 (1940), the Supreme Court, on the basis of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, applied this to state law as well. Case law and legislation in the second half of the twentieth century further clarified that any government laws, policies, or regulations which impinge on a person's right to act in accordance with their beliefs must be in pursuit of a broad and legitimate government purpose and must be framed in a way which is minimally burdensome. (For a very brief history of modern religious liberty law in the United States, see here.)

That is, it is the law of the land that no national, state, or local government is permitted to discriminate against a person on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs. Mr. Cochran was fired from a government position merely for expressing certain sincerely held religious beliefs. It is ironic that Mr. Cochran was discriminated against on the basis of the mayor's desire to establish a non-discriminatory environment for the city's employees. That is, rather than requiring gay and lesbian employees to remain under the supervision of a manager who might violate their rights, the mayor chose to actually violate the rights of the fire chief.

Some might respond to this that the fire chief had not merely potentially violated the rights of those city employees under his supervision, but had actually violated their rights by condemning homosexual activity as "vile." But this is nonsense. No-one has a right not to be offended. Even public officials retain a right to free speech, so long as it is clear when they are speaking for themselves and when they are speaking as a public office-holder. To assert the contrary will merely disqualify everyone with strong views on controversial issues from political office, since such views always offend someone. The non-existent "right to not be offended" would, if implemented, virtually guarantee unrepresentative government, since every significant issue dividing society by definition fosters strong opinions, and, by this silly non-right would guarantee that only those with no opinion on divisive issues could be candidates.

In order to have one's rights violated one must have suffered material, tangible damage. That someone has experienced emotional distress as a result of having heard others disparage them, their behavior, or their views does not, in general, mean that their rights have been violated. (NB, I do think there is an exception to this general principle in the case of children - laws and policies preventing children from being bullied are, within certain limits, a good thing.)

With regard to the establishment of "opinion tests" in order to be qualified for public office, where does it end? Do we really want to live in a nation where the government imposes litmus tests for belief? Such tests are expressly forbidden by the Constitution, regardless of how any hypothetical Supreme Court might wish to interpret it.

It is high time that our society was reminded that toleration does not mean that we never hear views with which we disagree. Toleration does not guarantee a public square where no-one ever says anything controversial. What toleration means is that we respect the rights of others to publicly express views which disagree with our own - even views which personally disparage us - and to do so without public penalty. Again, it is ironic that the concept of "tolerance" is being pressed in directions which are profoundly intolerant. Wild-eyed zealots of all stripes must be reminded that zealotry can only prosper in a world of tolerance for diverse opinion. To insist on uniformity of publicly expressed opinion is to insist on tyranny.

This not, of course, to say that there should be no limits at all on free speech or on the free exercise of religion. The classic examples of people who shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, or who claim a religious right to perform human sacrifice come to mind. It is, however, to say that any free society must permit people to differ with each other on important matters and to do so publicly and without government-imposed penalty.

It is to be hoped that the great center of our nation will act, as it usually has in the past, to restrain those foolish would-be revolutionaries who so earnestly seek to use the force of law to purge American society of those with whom they disagree. If not stopped, they will ultimately find that the demons they unleash will not establish a the "good society," but the guillotine and the gulag.

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