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Religious Leaders, Montana Firefighters, and Human Rights Activists Denounce Anti-Gay Speaker’s Divisive Message

Written by Nathan Kosted
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Speaker Featured by Montana Family Foundation Claims Slavery Helped Blacks in the Long Run

Mainline Christians and firefighters on the frontlines of community safety are speaking out for targeted LGBTQ people in their communities, in preparation for an anti-LGBTQ speaker who uses his story and image as a former firefighter to try and legitimize the discriminatory message he sells as “religious freedom.”

The Montana Family Foundation is featuring a disgraced former Atlanta fire chief at its fundraising events to be held in Billings and Bozeman over the next month. Kelvin Cochran was fired from his job in 2014 after writing a book that featured disparaging remarks about the LGBTQ community and women. In the book, he centered his job as Atlanta Fire Chief as a vehicle for spreading his message. He gave copies of the book to subordinates in his department, which kicked off a series of events that ended with his firing for ignoring department protocol and undermining his own ability to lead his department.

Cochran, however, falsely claims he was fired because of his religious beliefs, and he has become one of the leading activists for the Religious Right’s distorted version of “religious freedom.” The Montana Human Rights Network has issued a media advisory examining the Cochran controversy and his role in advancing the Religious Right’s new framing of bigotry.

Cochran has faced heavy backlash from firefighters, Christian leaders, and LGBTQ rights supporters in Atlanta and now here in Montana.

Bozeman’s Joel Fassbinder is president of the Montana State Council of Professional Firefighters, which represents nearly 700 professional firefighters in the state. When asked about Cochran coming to speak in Montana, Fassbinder stated:

“We believe that our organization is one of the most inclusive labor unions in this great country and Canada. As professionals and as a family, it is important that trust is not degraded by discrimination. We strive to make sure every group feels welcomed in our great family.

That is why the Montana State Council of Professional Firefighters strongly condemns any person that uses our image as firefighters to discriminate against any member or our communities.  We have many diverse members in our family – African American, Latino, LGBT, Christian, Muslim, Atheist and many more. We feel that Kelvin Cochran’s use of our respected professional image to push discriminatory and hateful ideals is shameful.  The Montana State Council of Professional Firefighters will continue to push for equal rights for everyone in our family and beyond.”

“While the City of Atlanta recently reached a settlement with Kelvin Cochran, it doesn’t change the fact that he behaved like a bad boss. He refused to follow the rules and forced his personal religious beliefs on subordinates. The Montana Family Foundation is, once again, bringing a pariah, not a prophet, to indoctrinate its supporters,” says Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network. McAdam warns that, “The Religious Right’s twisted version of religious freedom seeks to transform the First Amendment’s shield from religious discrimination into a spear of bigotry.”

Cochran’s version of religious freedom goes beyond his personal story and includes how slavery benefited African-Americans in the long run. Earlier this year, he told an audience that God enslaved Africans and brought them to the “religious Christian South” in this country to save them from following Islam. He framed this story as an example of religious freedom. To read more about Cochran, see MHRN’s report.

Religious leaders in Montana also spoke up to make it clear that the Montana Family Foundation and the Religious Right don’t represent all Christians. When asked about the Foundation bringing Cochran to Billings, Mike Mulberry, Senior Minister of Billings First Congregational Church, had this to say:

“To see that the Montana Family Foundation has invited Kelvin Cochran to come and speak more hatred and fear into our community is disappointing. I grieve how Mr. Cochran’s hurtful and exclusive language has made him a celebrated victim instead of recognizing his accountability for referencing members of the LGBTQ community as a ‘perversion.’ These treasured community members are beloved and welcomed in our town.”

Reverend D. Gregory Smith, the Assisting Priest at Bozeman’s St. James Episcopal Church, addressed the fallacy of Cochran’s and the Religious Right’s version of religious freedom, stating:

“When organizations trot out individuals who have persecuted LGBTQ persons and call them ‘heroes,’ it creates hateful environments and compromises the safety of LGBTQ persons. If this is perceived as Christianity, nothing could be farther from the truth. God loves us because God created us just as we are. The amount of delusion and cruelty that this embodies is really quite remarkable – and not in a good way. It simply justifies the persecution of fellow human beings, hardly loving one’s neighbor as oneself.”

Cochran’s critics continued the theme of focusing on positive role models for Montana communities instead of divisiveness. Kevin Bentz, president of the local firefighters’ union in Billings (IAFF Local 521), echoed many of Joel Fassbinder’s points. He noted that, to do their job, firefighters need to have integrity and the community’s trust. Bentz observed that his union has members from all walks of life, races, religions, and sexual orientations. About Kelvin Cochran’s appearances in Montana, Bentz stated:

“We are a family and stand by those that stand by our brothers and sisters. For these reasons we find it shameful that Kelvin Cochran uses the respected image of firefighters to push discriminatory and hateful ideas. As Billings Firefighters IAFF Local 521, we will continue to stand up for everyone in our communities without discrimination. That’s our job, and we are proud of it.”

Supporters of LGBTQ equality in Bozeman are planning an “Equality Safe Space Coffee Hour” to show support for the LGBTQ community and the others targeted by the type of bigotry promoted by the likes of the Montana Family Foundation.  It will be held on November 1, 2018, at Wild Joe’s (18 West Main Street, Bozeman) starting at 5:00 p.m.

For more background on Kelvin Cochran and the Montana Family Foundation, please see MHRN’s report: https://mhrn.org/2018/10/16/cochran

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