Will Justice Prevail? An Update on Three Landmark Religious Liberty Cases

By   •   May 15, 2017

Alliance Defending Freedom’s media relations director Bob Trent (standing) moderates a discussion panel of current clients. Seated: Erik Stanley, ADF Senior Counsel; Carl Larsen; Annette Kiehne; Kelvin Cochran.

Kelvin Cochran, former Atlanta fire chief, wrote a devotional book for men aimed at helping them overcome strongholds. In the book, he expressed his view that marriage should be between a man and a woman. As a result, Cochran was fired from the Atlanta fire department in January 2015, even though he was found innocent of discrimination after an internal investigation.

Annette Kiehne is director of the Trinity Lutheran Church preschool. Trinity was denied a government grant to improve the safety of a playground area—simply because the school is run by a faith-based institution.

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Carl Larsen, a Minnesota filmmaker, is under fire because of his efforts via film to tell the story of God through Biblical marriage. The state of Minnesota says that Telescope Media Group—the company Larsen runs with his wife, Angel—must also be willing to tell stories about same-sex marriage, or face discrimination charges.

These cases could determine the trajectory of religious liberty in America for decades to come.

On March 2 at the annual National Religious Broadcasters convention, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based law firm specializing in religious freedom cases, hosted a panel discussion that included Cochran, Kiehne and Larsen.

Kelvin Cochran: ‘Under the Sovereign Supervision of God’

From 1981 to 2015, Kelvin Cochran worked faithfully as a firefighter, beginning in his hometown of Shreveport, La., and ending as a fire chief in Atlanta. Between those times, he was appointed by President Obama to the highest office a firefighter can have—U.S. Fire Administrator, where he worked with Homeland Security and FEMA.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, Cochran holds Biblical principles dear. On his own time as a church layman, he wrote and distributed a devotional book in which he addressed sexual sin—including homosexuality—and his support for Biblical marriage. When Atlanta city authorities learned of his beliefs in November 2014, the retribution enacted against him was immediate suspension without pay.

During his suspension, investigators found no proof that he had discriminated in his job as fire chief. Still, on Jan. 6, 2015, he was fired. This spring, after several weeks of depositions, he will finally head to federal district court to challenge his termination.

“All of our sufferings are under the sovereign supervision of God,” Cochran said. “And I am enduring suffering so that at the end of it He will be glorified.”

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley

For decades, the playground at Trinity Lutheran Church’s preschool, The Learning Center, has had an open use policy. It not only serves the children who attend the preschool, but many in the nearby residential areas of Columbia, Mo., who do not have convenient access to a public park. The playground is a hub of the community in many ways.

When the school applied for a grant as part of a state program that provides rubberized play surfaces to create a safer environment for 2-year-olds, it was denied, solely based on its religious status. Annette Kiehne, along with church members and others in the community, was shocked and disappointed.

“Our membership looked at that, and it felt wrong,” said Kiehne, the director of The Learning Center. “They are just kids playing. And you want kids to be as safe as possible. These are 2-year-olds.”

Erik Stanley, ADF senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries, explained that Trinity Lutheran should be treated equally as a full member of the community. It should not be denied status because of its religion.

“Obviously, (how the state is discriminating) is not legal. The state of Missouri … relied on a clause that allows the government to prohibit public funds from a religious institution,” he explained. “This is an old constitutional amendment from the 1800s, but it’s being applied in a very strict way here. Missouri in its briefing to the Supreme Court said they were trying to uphold a very high degree of separation between church and state. Our contention is that this is not separation of church and state. This playground grant has nothing to do with religion at all. We’re talking about a rubberized surface for a playground.”

Kiehne added, “It really makes you stop and think. They are basically saying those kids don’t deserve to be as safe as other kids on another playground.”

The case was set to be argued before the Supreme Court on April 19.

*Editor’s note: arguments were heard on the intended date and the Supreme Court will deliver its ruling in June.

Carl and Angel Larsen: Silenced for Telling God’s Story

“A telescope is an instrument to magnify things … take something that is already large and show it close up,” Carl Larsen said as he described the company—Telescope Media Group—he founded with his wife, Angel. “We are attracted to stories central to who God is. God describes Himself at the beginning of creation through a wedding story. The end of the Bible is a wedding celebration between a pure Bride and her Groom. So we’re excited to tell stories about the glory of God through marriage.”

A law in Minnesota says that filmmakers must promote same-sex marriage if they produce films that celebrate marriage between one man and one woman; this violates the mission of Telescope Media Group. The Larsens could face fines as steep as $25,000 and 90 days in jail if they were to violate the state law. So, in an attempt to protect their right to work according to their faith, they have filed a pre-enforcement challenge in federal court.

The implications of this case, Stanley says, could be far-reaching and invasive: “This law not only says what you cannot say, but requires you to say a message that violates your faith. That’s really concerning, because if the government is big enough to do that, it’s big enough to force anyone to do anything.”

Says Carl Larsen: “As we go forward, we just want to stay close to Jesus. … We want to do this well and trust Him throughout the process.”  ©2017 BGEA

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One comment

  1. Pearl Nicholas says:

    In the Bible, Jesus told us we would be persecuted. I did not realize just how people would turn against neighbors just because of their differences in opinions. The violent hatred is mind boggling.