The Story: A fire chief that was fired for advocating a biblical view of marriage and sexuality will receive $1.2 million from the city of Atlanta as compensation suffered from unconstitutional harm.
The Background: In 2016, Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was fired by Mayor Kasim Reed for self-publishing a book on Christian manhood. In the book, Cochran describes homosexuality as a “perversion” and characterizes homosexual acts as “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.”
After activists who disagreed with Cochran’s Christian views on sex complained about the book, the fire chief was initially suspended for 30 days and told he would have to complete “sensitivity training.” The city of Atlanta later initiated an investigation that led to the chief’s termination from his job. At the time, the mayor argued the firing of the chief had nothing to do with Cochran’s Christian faith, but rather was because a “lack of judgment.”
Until his dismissal, Cochran had served as the fire chief of Atlanta Fire Rescue Department since 2010. He had previously spent nearly 30 years with the Shreveport, Louisiana, fire department. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him as U.S. fire administrator for the United States Fire Administration in Washington, D.C. He took the job in Atlanta in 2010 at the urging of Mayor Reed.
Cochran was highly regarded in his field, having served as first vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and president of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association and authoring two chapters for the Chief Fire Officers Desk Reference. In 2012, Fire Chief magazine named Cochran “Fire Chief of the Year.” In his personal time, Cochran serves as a deacon and a Sunday school teacher at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Atlanta.
An investigative report by the city of Atlanta said that Cochran did not seek approval to publish the book—a claim Cochran disputes—but found no indication that the chief had allowed his religious beliefs to compromise his disciplinary decisions. The investigation claim that led to the dismissal was that there was a “general agreement the contents of the book have eroded trust and have compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.”
In 2015, attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a federal lawsuit on Cochran’s behalf, claiming the “Defendants fired Cochran solely because he holds religious beliefs concerning same-sex marriage and homosexual conduct that are contrary to the Mayor’s and the City’s views on these subjects, and because he expressed those beliefs in the non-work-related, religious book he self-published.”
According to ADF, in December 2017, a federal district court recognized that the city of Atlanta’s actions were unconstitutional. The court struck down Atlanta’s policy that requires government employees to receive permission before engaging in free speech outside of their jobs, the very policy the city used to justify firing Cochran.
This week, the City of Atlanta agreed to pay $1.2 million in a settlement, recognizing that Cochran had suffered unconstitutional harm.
Why It Matters: Fire Chief Cochran’s victory reveals—once again—that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are often intertwined.
In his 162-page devotional book, written on his personal time, Cochran briefly mentions his Christian views on sex and marriage. But the city of Atlanta used the “pre-clearance” rules as an excuse to fire him over speech and beliefs they disagreed with. That’s not allowed by the First Amendment, said the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in its decision in Cochran v. City of Atlanta,
This policy would prevent an employee from writing and selling a book on golf or badminton on his own time and, without prior approval, would subject him to firing. It is unclear to the Court how such an outside employment would ever affect the City’s ability to function, and the City provides no evidence to justify it . . . The potential for stifled speech far outweighs an unsupported assertion of harm.
That ruling sets a precedent that will prevent other government employees from being fired for expressing their personal religious views without approval.
“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before they engage in free speech. It also can’t fire them for exercising that First Amendment freedom, causing them to lose both their freedom and their livelihoods,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued before the court on behalf of Cochran last year. “We are very pleased that the city is compensating Chief Cochran as it should, and we hope this will serve as a deterrent to any government that would trample upon the constitutionally protected freedoms of its public servants.”