Here is a question for reporters covering the big story down in Atlanta, where Mayor Kasim Reed has fired Fire Rescue Department Chief Kevin Cochran after he published a book in which it appears that he affirmed centuries of orthodox Christian doctrine on sex and marriage.
There are several issues to examine in some of the main reports, but let's start with the headline in The New York Times: "Atlanta Ousts Fire Chief Who Has Antigay Views."
This raises a crucial question linked to the labeling of religious believers in this day and age. For example: Is Pope Francis "antigay"? This is, of course, the leader of a church that affirms, in its most bulletproof volume of doctrine:
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. ... Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
Is that statement officially "antigay," which would make those who affirm the Catechism officially "antigay"? Ditto for millions of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others who embrace traditional, orthodox versions of their faiths.
In other words, at the level of headlines, when are believers being "anti" one thing, as opposed to being "pro" something else?
It would help to know some specifics about what Cochran is said to believe. Here is some of the crucial Times material on that issue:
Mr. Reed had suspended Mr. Cochran for a month without pay in November, opening an investigation into whether Mr. Cochran’s authorship and distribution of the book to workers violated the city’s nondiscrimination policies. That move sparked a debate about religious liberty and freedom of expression: Last month, the 1.4-million member Georgia Baptist Convention began an online petition that called for Mr. Cochran’s reinstatement and suggested his First Amendment rights had been violated.
The matter also presents a challenge for Mr. Reed, a second-term Democrat who presides over a metropolis whose social mosaic is defined by strong expressions of Christianity and large and politically powerful gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual groups.
And then there is this:
Mr. Cochran, a firefighter for more than three decades, was chosen to lead the city’s department by Mr. Reed’s predecessor, Shirley Franklin, in 2008. He returned to the position in May 2010 after having served 10 months as fire administrator for the United States Fire Administration.
He is also a member of a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which holds homosexuality to be sinful. Mr. Cochran’s book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” counts homosexual acts among a number of “vile, vulgar and inappropriate” activities that serve to “dishonor God,” according to excerpts obtained by the local gay news media and activists.
That's a strange passage, on several levels. For one thing, traditional Christians -- see the Catechism again -- teach that all sexual acts outside of marriage are sinful. Thus, "homosexual acts" are among acts that are considered sinful.
However, note that the same Times passage also says that the Southern Baptist Convention also "holds homosexuality to be sinful." Is the orientation/temptation sinful in and of itself? Almost all traditional religious believers, including Cochran as a Southern Baptist (and Pope Francis as a Catholic), would say "no."
So is this Times paragraph accurate in its reflection of this man's beliefs? The answer is "no" in one line and "yes" in another. Strange. Oh, and which of these two different doctrinal stances officially earns a believer the "antigay" label?
I will give the Times team credit for one thing in this article: At least this article captures the fact that the mayor and the now ex-fire chief disagree on crucial facts in this work-place policy debate. The article also gives some attention to both sides in this debate about what may or may not -- depending one one's views -- be a dispute about the First Amendment and religious liberty.
Meanwhile, Atlanta's mayor says that Cochran wrote and distributed this book without getting clearance to do so. That's one side. However:
Mr. Cochran held his own news conference. ... He said that the city’s investigation found that he had not acted in a discriminatory way toward gay people, and said that he had asked for, and received, permission from the proper bureaucratic channels to write the book -- an assertion Mr. Reed’s office disputes. Mr. Reed added that the chief had not told him about the book and its “inflammatory content.”
Mr. Cochran said that three city employees had received a copy of the book without asking for one. But he said that he had given it out only to members of the department whom he had established “a personal relationship with as Christians.”
Contrast that with the following passage from a story -- I think it's a news story, maybe not -- at The Washington Post:
In November, the administration suspended Cochran without pay as it probed whether the book -- along with reports that it was distributed to some of the fire department’s employees -- violated city policy.
At a ... press conference, Reed said the termination was about the chief’s personal “judgment,” adding: “This is not about religious freedom, this is not about free speech.”
The mayor’s office opened an investigation into Cochran’s conduct after employees shared concerns over the book’s contents, city spokeswoman Anne Torres said in November. At the time, Torres said “there are a number of passages in the book that directly conflict with the city’s nondiscrimination policies.”
The city also said that the book was distributed to an undetermined number of the department’s employees.
There are crucial facts stated there, more than once. And what does Cochran have to say about the accuracy of those fact claims?
The Post offers readers: Click here.
Was the Times alone in saying these crucial facts were in dispute? Let's check the local paper on this story, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Reed stressed that his decision is not because of Cochran’s faith: “His religious (beliefs) are not the basis of the problem. His judgment is the basis of the problem.”
The mayor said though Cochran consulted the city’s ethics officer before publishing the book, Nina Hickson did not grant approval.
Cochran has a differing account. He said he received verbal clearance from Hickson to publish the book, and therefore didn’t believe he needed permission from Reed as city law allowed it. Hickson could not be reached for immediate comment on Tuesday.
What’s more, Cochran said he gave a copy of the book to Reed’s executive assistant in January 2014, and that the mayor later confirmed receiving it.
Sounds like a debate to me.
Thus, journalists will want to be very careful in accurately reporting the beliefs, and fact claims, on both sides.