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Chief’s Rights Violated

By Tim Head Atlanta Journal Constitution, January 15, 2015 There is a drama unfolding at Atlanta City Hall. A tragedy, really. You’ve seen it in smaller venues, but millions are watching now. Mayor Kasim Reed’s termination of Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran will have many actors and many acts before the final curtain, but the most important players may never actually be on stage. I should be writing about Cochran’s violated First Amendment rights or about a proven family system that has served our species well for millennia. But the more I inspected our emerging drama, the more I found myself craning my neck to see the figure just behind the curtain. In watching Reed’s press conference last week, I was struck by a subtle, but significant, motivator for him — that someone in the future might bring a claim of discrimination against the city based on religious viewpoints found in a few lines of a book Cochran self-published in 2013. Reed danced around this motivator but never named a quiet but powerful presence lurking just off stage. Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, making various forms of discrimination in the workplace unlawful and creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce these protections. Since then, the EEOC has done what all government agencies do: grow. Its budget has exploded. Its jurisdiction has expanded into the cracks of everyday American life. Cochran’s firing introduces us to one of these cracks: “Hostile work environment” harassment law. It’s all around you, even if you don’t know it. If you had a “winter break” instead of Christmas vacation, you can thank the EEOC. If you’ve stopped yourself before complimenting a member of the opposite gender on their outfit or haircut, the EEOC tips its hat to you. And if you decided not to share a political opinion on social media because a co-worker votes differently, the EEOC has done its job. It is the editor of our daily conversations, and it is becoming the thought police. If it were to have a line to deliver in our play downtown, it would be simple: “Be tolerant, be quiet or be gone.” Nobody wants a hostile work environment. But the EEOC no longer just takes discrimination cases that have already happened. It now makes sure nothing happens that could create a potential environment for future discrimination. The eye of the EEOC begins in the workplace but moves to personal social media postings, sermons in the pulpit, my writing of this piece, and a fire chief’s self-published book. The EEOC has no legal jurisdiction until someone brings a claim. So how does a mayor terminate a fire chief without a single allegation of discrimination in an exceptionally decorated 30-year career? Because someone might bring a discrimination claim in the future. And to borrow from another recently revived drama, tomorrow is only a day away. Herein lies the EEOC’s ultimate power. In its intentional vagueness, the EEOC can expand and contract as it desires. So it need only cast its shadow in City Hall to remind the mayor that if a single person in the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department were to read Cochran’s book and then claim discrimination, it could cost the city millions. So leaders can either choose personal liberty or play defense and abruptly “separate” from rogue religious speakers like Cochran. The only way for an employer to be sure is to disallow all controversial speech. At that point, tolerance has dealt a mortal blow to liberty. We all have witnessed this drama I call, “The Tyranny of the Tolerant.” A fuller peek behind the curtain will reveal others beside the EEOC. But that’s for another day. Tim Head is executive director of the Duluth-based Faith and Freedom Coalition.

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