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When Bigots Hide Behind Religious Freedom

| January 16, 2015

Kelvin Cochran, the former Atlanta fire chief.

Kelvin Cochran, the former Atlanta fire chief.

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.”

pierre tristam column flaglerlive 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 resumé 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.

You are 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.

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.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him on Twitter. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.

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31 Responses for “When Bigots Hide Behind Religious Freedom”

  1. orphan says:

    Just this, Pierre, from me: HUGS!

  2. Concerned says:

    The Christian Right is neither, never has been never will be. Glad you’re pushing on, Pierre, thanks.

  3. Kate says:

    Great article!


    Don’t often agree with you, Pierre, but I have to say, “Preach it, brother.”

    Discriminating against homosexuals is just as wrong as discriminating against black, Hispanic, female or even somebody from Putnam County.

    The Bible does not say it’s ok to do that.

    The Bible says homosexuality is a sin, but it also says to love the sinner.

    Discrimination is not love. Acceptance is love.

  5. Tom Jacks says:

    Pierre, you writing this article about bigots is like the kettle calling the pot black.

  6. JimBob says:

    You didn’t finish the quote from Mel Brooks’ History of the World. “The jig is up…and gone.”

  7. What's Happening says:

    How easy is it? “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”? If “Big Media” would stop giving these bigots airtime to spew their hate, it wouldn’t be so easy.

    You may call it “freedom of speech” that bigots can speak freely. And I would call you correct. But the First Amendment does not guarantee any bigot a microphone to spew their hate! So it’s not suppressing their “freedom to speak” to choose to NOT give them airtime on America’s “news” stations. Would that those people really reported news only, instead of garbage meant to divide us all. “The Jig Is Up”, all right, Pierre–but we’ve got a long way to go, as long as idiots driven only by greed insist on perpetuating these bigots in the public sphere.

  8. Sherry Epley says:

    Another excellent article Pierre! My thoughts and feelings exactly! Bigotry, unfortunately crosses all racial, national, political and religious lines.

  9. Vincent says:

    “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.”
    If only that were true, Pierre.
    Pope Francis himself has just said:
    “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” . . . . “There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”

  10. Jim R says:

    Someday believing in a religion will be seen as proof of mental disease .

  11. El Kabong says:

    Gee, What would this country look like under SHARIA LAW ? How about that Pierre ?

    • NortonSmitty says:

      If we ever get CHRISTIAN LAW in this country, it will pretty much be the same as Sharia. Except for electrocutions instead of beheadings maybe.

  12. Rick Gardner says:

    If this guy is really a Christian and familiar with the bible he would know that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and none of the writers of the bible in the new testament that attributed words to Jesus said anything about it either. So as usual religious zealots love to pick and choose their talking points and read whatever they think into the works of those who claim to write for their creator.

  13. RAKA says:

    Welcome back Mr. Tristam. Your article is so pricise in expressing the obvious

  14. charlie says:

    unlesss a man is born again he cannot enter the kingdom of god john3-3
    that is the bible sir and 1cor6-9 about who will not enter the kingdom of heaven
    it is no joking matter that you make fun of bible believing christians who stand
    for truth religion cannot save anyone only those who repent of there sins and
    receive the lord jesus christ alone as there personal saviour. please read the
    bible from genesis to revelation and see maybe you too can be born again.
    john 14-6 acts 4-12 romans 6-23, romans 3-23

    • NortonSmitty says:

      But if you lead a good life, treat you fellow man with kindness and respect and get it right the first time, why would you need to be Born Again? The only creatures I ever heard of that were born again are Zombies. And I’m sorry, I don’t believe in Zombies.

      As an afterthought, why is it you Christians list passages from a book of 6000 year old fables and superstitions to prove your points like they were footnotes in a scientific journal? They’re not.

  15. Nikia says:

    Has anyone read the New Testament? Two laws – Love God and love your neighbor. That means everyone. Everybody not doing that is completely missing the mark. Saying pay for contraception but don’t force your beliefs down my throat is a pretty contradictory statement. I also think that most people aren’t particularly opposed to gay union. I think they are mostly upset about redefining something that has already been defined. If society allowed gay unions and it was a different terminology I think this whole thing would be less of an argument. People are just so caught up in having all the wrong conversations in this country. It is so easy to blame religion how about looking for a solution instead. How about instead of talking about abortion we talk about maternity leave and benefits? Our right and our left has us so completely convinced that we are either this or that we have lost the ability to see the grey.

    • Nancy N says:

      You have a very simplistic view of the issue of abortion if you think it can be eradicated by “talking about maternity leave and benefits”. The costs and burdens of raising a child extends far beyond the short time considered “maternity” by most people. It is a lifetime commitment. Some people are not prepared to take on that burden when they find themselves pregnant. Others need to terminate pregnancies for medical reasons, either because it poses a threat to the health and safety of the mother, or because the embryo/fetus has a serious health issue. Others choose to terminate because the pregnancy is the result of rape.

      You can’t wave a magic wand, give women a few maternity benefits and eradicate abortion. It’s more complex than that. There will always be a need for women to have access to abortion to control their reproductive health.

  16. Sherry Epley says:

    Dear Nikia says,

    Requiring insurance companies to cover ALL medically approved contraception, and giving those covered the OPTION to use that coverage is not “forcing beliefs” down anyone’s throats. First of all, no one is requiring the use of contraceptives. Secondly, the use of contraceptives is NOT a”belief” system.

    On the other hand, any religious belief that restricts my right for insurance coverage for a medically approved prescription or procedure, IS a case of “forcing your beliefs down my throat”!

    We should leave the rights for a woman to control her body and her reproduction to the privacy between a woman and her doctor. . . with NO religious interference, and (as you noted) we should also be talking about maternity leave and benefits. These things are not mutually exclusive.

  17. charlie says:

    just like sodom and gomorah was destroyed bywickedness genesis 19
    for you so called intellects it was a real place. you can laugh and scoff
    but was a real place.jeus christ is the way the truth and the life no man
    comes to the father except byme if you seen me you have seen the father
    i amd my father are one john14-6.heb4-12 for the word of god is quick
    and powerful and sharper than a twoedged sword. you can mock sin
    all you want but america will be judged by god. gal6-7 be not deceived
    GOD is not mocked what soever a man soweth that he also reap.

  18. John says:

    To Sherry, I disagree, if you want to play, you should PAY. Liberals want conservatives to stay out of their bedrooms, I agree, And then I should not have to pay for anything that goes on in that bedroom.

    • Nalla C. says:

      You say that, John, as if churches don’t want to eradicate birth control altogether. Not true. Stay out of the bedrooms of others, and insist that your church stay out of them as well. You’ll find your lives to be drama and interference free from the point where you all simply start minding your own business, period.

    • Nancy N says:

      Tell you what John, I’ll make you a deal.

      I’ll pay for what goes on in my bedroom that you find offensive and you pay for all those wars and executions that I find offensive.

      Oh, what – what’s that you say? It doesn’t work that way? You’re right, it doesn’t. When we are part of a collective group, we don’t get to pick and choose what our money is being spent on. As individuals we don’t have line item veto on our insurance premiums or taxes. It’s part of being part of a group – the art of compromising for the greater good.

  19. confidential says:

    Why don’t they stop trying to control women’s rights to have authority over their own bodies and lives?
    A child as well said above, is a lifetime commitment, otherwise then the poor/innocent/unexpected/unwanted/un afforded child ends up sacrificed/neglected or even prematurely dead as often happens within the uncompassionate society and even religious groups that for sure do not come to the much needed aid of the mother and child in time to prevent a sadly often tragedy.
    Religious groups should be investing their time and $$ on helping the already mothers and children already in desperate need of aid other that trying to control the bodies and decisions of all women.

  20. nomad says:

    Hide behind? More like invoke religious freedom. I was recently summoned for jury duty and upon entering the courtroom there was a gigantic and overbearing “In God We Trust” sign on the wall behind the judge. When the judge asked if there was any reason, religious or otherwise, we were unable to serve, I was tempted to object to the sign and offer my alternate suggestion of “In Justice We Serve.” But I didn’t because I did not want to be there and I sure wasn’t going to expose myself to any questionable charge(s). I also took issue with the ominous red color leatherbound Bible that was in plain view. I was very relieved when I was not selected. The surrealism was too overwhelming for me to handle. This is pretty much what life in America has become.

    There are far too many atrocities committed in the name of religion for justice and religion to mix.

  21. Sherry Epley says:

    Dear “John says”. . .

    When insurance policies no longer pay for the Viagra type drugs used by men, then your statement about the bedroom will no longer be so very hypocritical. . . like you said “if you want to play , then YOU (men) should pay”!

    Nancy has it right, as usual. . . I also don’t want my taxes used for macho wars and executions, or on corrupt politicians that are hell bent on obstructing the will of the people and spend their time kissing the feet of the greedy, heartless 1%!

  22. Nikia says:

    Right here in our community churches are taking care of the long term commitment. We have St Gerard house for mothers and pregnant women, we have community outreach programs, we have the Methodist Church in Bunnell providing homeless shelter, we have project Rachel for those suffering from the psychological effects of abortion because that never comes up in the debate. What have you done lately to help? It is so simplistic and naive to say stay out of our business when Church organizations are forced by law to pay for things that go against their core beliefs. All I am saying is if you want freedom, respect ours too. be a part of the solution not a part of the problem.

  23. Jessie says:

    Okay, I understand the article and the discrepancy between claiming to be religious and expressing discriminant views. However, what I am scratching my head over is, how is Flagler posting this situation when racism/discrimination continues to flow so rampantly in this county. Take care of the problems of bigotry here. People in Flagler are ridiculous and those who can say or do something about it seems to be afraid or more concerned about being accepted. Its been said that in order to change you must start with you.

  24. Jane says:

    I do agree with Sherry, I don’t want my tax money to be spend on these things :/

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