Court rules ousted Christian fire chief can proceed with lawsuit
by Sarah Padbury
Posted 1/07/16, 03:55 pm
A district court judge denied the City of Atlanta’s request to dismiss a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against it in early 2015 by former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fired the decorated employee after learning Cochran self-published a men’s devotional that presented a biblical view of sexuality.
Cochran rose through the firehouse ranks to become Atlanta’s fire chief, serving from 2008-2009. He then served as President Barack Obama’s administrator of the United States Fire Administration in Washington, D.C. In 2010, at the request of Reed, Cochran returned to Atlanta to serve as fire chief once again. He remained at the post until he was fired in Jan. 2015.
In 2012, Fire Chief magazine named Cochran “Fire Chief of the Year.” Reed congratulated Cochran in a press release, saying his “pioneering efforts to improve performance and service within the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department have won him much-deserved national recognition.”
But the relationship soured in Nov. 2014 when city councilmember Alex Wan, an LGBT advocate, showed Reed a half-page portion of Cochran’s book, Who Told You That You Were Naked? The passage, which criticized homosexual sex, was part of a six-page section that denounced extramarital and premarital sexual activity as well, labeling all sex outside of marriage between a man and woman as unbiblical. An unnamed fire department employee had complained to Wan that he disagreed with that section of the book and wanted Cochran reported to “upper management,” according to the lawsuit.
Cochran was put on an immediate 30-day suspension without pay. The mayor’s representative told reporters the city was investigating Cochran’s actions and he would undergo “sensitivity training.”
“I want to be clear that the material in Chief Cochran’s book is not representative of my personal beliefs, and is inconsistent with the administration’s work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all of her citizens—regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race, and religious beliefs,” Reed said at the time, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Reed’s investigation revealed no workplace claims of discrimination due to Cochran’s personal beliefs. Even so, Reed fired Cochran in Jan. 2015, claiming Cochran violated a city ordinance that required employees to have written permission from the city’s board of ethics before engaging in “outside employment.” Cochran had received verbal permission from the ethics board chief to publish the book, and had also given Reed a copy of the book a year earlier, according to the lawsuit.
Cochran filed a lawsuit against the city for wrongful termination last February. In April, the city filed a motion to have the lawsuit’s eight counts of discrimination dismissed. But Judge Leigh May ruled Dec. 16 the suit could move forward on four of the counts, including claims of retaliation, discrimination based on his viewpoint, and the violation of Cochran’s constitutional rights of religion, association, and due process.
Cochran, currently serving in full-time ministry at Elizabeth Baptist Church, has received support from folks who are often political adversaries. A group of six Georgia Congressmen, all Republicans, signed an open letter to Reed encouraging him to re-instate Cochran. In addition, Peter Kirsanow, one of the eight members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote a letter condemning Reed’s actions.
“No one has alleged that Chief Cochran has discriminated against LGBT firefighters or, for that matter, against heterosexual firefighters whose sexual behavior is contrary to Chief Cochran’s orthodox Christian beliefs,” Kirsanow wrote. “No one has alleged that Chief Cochran requires dispatchers to ask if an emergency caller is LGBT before sending assistance. In short, the ‘disruption’ put forth by the city consists of one [fire department] member’s disagreement with six pages of a self-published religious devotional book. This interest plainly is insufficient to justify muzzling Chief Cochran.”
Sarah is a writer, editor, and adoption advocate. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Sarah and her husband live with their six teenagers in Castle Rock, Colo.