Fire chief fired for views on homosexuality has day in court

Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran

Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran

The city of Atlanta is asking a federal judge to toss out of court a wrongful discharge suit filed by former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who was fired by the mayor in January after he wrote a men’s devotional book for a Baptist church group that was critical of homosexuality.

A hearing was held Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, and a decision is expected within 30 days.

Cochran wrote the book on his own time and says he was fired solely because of the religious views he expressed in the book with regard to homosexuality, which he included along with bestiality and other sexual activity as against God’s natural order.

The book, titled “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” included a section on sexuality in which Cochran described all sex outside of traditional holy matrimony as displeasing to God.

Cochran claims his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion were violated by the city and Mayor Muhammad Kasim Reed.

Cochran wrote in his book the following passage:

“When men are unrestrained in their quest for sex outside of God’s purpose they will never be fulfilled. Naked men refuse to give in, so they pursue sexual fulfillment through multiple partners, with the opposite sex, same sex and sex outside of marriage and many other vile, vulgar and inappropriate ways which defile their body-temple and dishonor God.”

That ran counter to the beliefs of Mayor Muhammad Kasim Reed and was enough to get him suspended, then fired.

The city now claims the reason Cochran was fired was because he didn’t get written permission to write the self-published book.

“One of the most alarming things is that we did not know about the book when it was published,” city spokeswoman Anne Torres told WSB-TV.

But Cochran’s lawyers said that’s simply not true. They say Cochran handed an early copy of his book to Reed in January 2014, a year before he was fired.

“This wasn’t a surprise,” said Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Cochran in his legal battle with the city. “This is the thought police.”

Christian churches and groups rallied around Cochran, a deacon at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Atlanta. Thousands signed a petition seeking his reinstatement.

Muhammad Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta.

Muhammad Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta.

“A religious test can’t be used to fire a public servant, but that’s just what the city of Atlanta did to Chief Cochran in this case,” Theriot said. “This places every city employee in jeopardy who may hold to a belief that city officials just don’t like. Tolerance must apply to people of all different viewpoints not just to those who agree with the beliefs that government favors.”

Cochran said he would never hide his faith, nor would he ever mistreat any person based on their sexual orientation. He was, in fact, cleared in an investigation of mistreating any of his fellow city employees.

“In the United States of America, Americans should not have to choose between keeping your job and living out your faith,” Cochran told The Daily Signal in July. “And that’s the position the city of Atlanta actually has taken—that I have to have a choice to live out my faith or to keep my job.”

“Everything I wrote in the book is based on scriptures, not my opinions,” he told USA Today after he was terminated.

“LGBT citizens deserve the right to express their belief regarding sexual orientation and deserve to be respected for their position without hate and discrimination, but Christians also have the right to express their beliefs as well,” said Cochran.

Alex Wan, Atlanta's only openly homosexual city council member.

Alex Wan, Atlanta’s only openly homosexual city council member.

City Councilman Alex Wan, the city’s openly homosexual council member, supported Reed’s decision to terminate Cochran, a decision that was widely cheered by the city’s LGBT community.

“I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions but when you’re a city employee and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door,” Wan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Growing up poor

Cochran grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana.

“My father left my mother and my mother never remarried. We were already poor when he was there but after he left we couldn’t afford to live in the projects anymore,” he recalls. “I remember times when our water was turned off and we had to keep pots and jugs in the house filled with water because my mother knew in a few days that we would have no water.”

But he never lost hope, he said, that things would turn around.

“For all my childhood I thought about two things growing up, not wanting to be poor and I wanted to be a firefighter,” he said.

He became not only that, but the nation’s top firefighter when President Obama tapped him to become the U.S. Fire Administrator.

“Now those principles that I was taught as a kid — faith in God, education, respect authority and treat other people like you want to be treated — really fed my career success and my life success,” Cochran said.

A couple of years later Atlanta’s mayor came calling. Reed “begged” Cochran to return to his old post. He did and was named fire chief of the year in 2012.

Not politically correct?

But all that hard word and good will disappeared when Reed started receiving complaints from those in the city who were offended by the fire chief’s religious views.

The mayor released the following statement after firing Cochran:

“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 citizens – regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race and religious beliefs.”

Before firing the chief in January, Reed had initially suspended him in November 2014. Reed also said he made the decision to ax the award-winning chief not for his religious beliefs but for his “judgment.”

But the city can’t have it both ways, says ADF’s Jeremy Tedesco.

“The reality is that when the mayor suspended him without pay for 30 days he came out and said that he profoundly disagreed with, and was deeply disturbed, by what Chief Cochran wrote in his book,” said Tedesco. “And that was the reason given for the initial suspension. Now, sure, the city has said a lot of different things since then. Those are what we call pretexts in the law. Pretexts are things that you say to try to cover up the wrong things that you did, and that’s what the city is doing here.”

A chilling effect on religious liberty

Cochran’s battle, if he loses, will have a chilling effect on religious freedom in America, Tedesco said.

“Every American should be concerned about a government that thinks it can fire you because of what you believe, which is exactly what happened to Chief Cochran,” he said. “If it can happen to him, a distinguished firefighter who obtained the highest position in fire service in the United States, it can happen to anybody.”

Despite being completely exonerated of doing anything wrong on his job and how he treats people, the city fired him anyway, Tedesco said. “And that really goes to show, they fired him for one thing, and that is, he held the wrong beliefs, according to the city.”

Cochran said he still wants his job back. In fact, he’s had difficulty finding another job because of all the disparaging comments that Reed has made about him.

“To actually lose my childhood dream-come-true profession where all of my expectations have been greatly exceeded, over my faith, the very faith that caused me to get my job, ultimately has cost me my job.”

“All Americans are guaranteed the freedom of actually believing and thinking in such a way that does not cost them the consequences that I’ve experienced in this termination.”

ADF attorneys said they hope the civil rights lawsuit will vindicate Cochran’s and send a message to the government that you “can’t fire someone for their religious beliefs and thoughts.”