Atlanta’s Desperate Defense of Christian Discrimination Falls Short

Ousted Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.
Ousted Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran. (Facebook)

The city of Atlanta's response to its wrongful termination of Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran for his religious beliefs falls woefully short, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys who represent him in a lawsuit against the city.

ADF attorneys say the city's motion to dismiss filed in federal district court Wednesday actually confirms the lawsuit's argument that the city fired Cochran for holding and expressing religious beliefs city officials didn't like. In the motion, the city claims it was entitled to fire Cochran because the views he expressed in a Christian devotional book "caused at least one [fire department] member enough concern to complain to a City Councilmember" and because Cochran distributed the book to a handful of department members, most of whom had asked for a copy and none of whom objected.

"In America, a religious or ideological test cannot be used to fire a public servant, but that's precisely what the city did," said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. "That endangers everyone who works for the city who may hold to a belief that the city doesn't like. Furthermore, the First Amendment fully protects the freedom of any public employee to distribute religious materials at work to those willing to receive them, and no city rule—written or unwritten—can override that freedom."

After activists who don't agree with Cochran's Christian views on sex complained to City Councilman Alex Wan about a brief mention of the topic in the 162-page men's devotional book Cochran had written on his personal time, Reed suspended him for 30 days and announced that Cochran would have to complete "sensitivity training." Reed then fired Cochran, even though a city investigation concluded that he did not discriminate against anyone.

Reed recounted in his 2014 State of the City Address that he "begged" Cochran to return to Atlanta in 2010 from his job as U.S. fire administrator in the Obama administration. Cochran agreed, and the city council confirmed him to serve a second time as the city's fire chief, a job Cochran originally held from 2008 to 2009. In 2012, Fire Chief magazine named Cochran "Fire Chief of the Year."

Despite this, the city claims in its brief that Cochran was fired for breaking a rule it claims required him to obtain permission before publishing books even if they are unrelated to his job. While ADF attorneys point out that any such rule is unconstitutional even if it applies to Cochran, he did, on his own, obtain permission from a city official before he published his book, a copy of which he also provided to the mayor almost a year before he was fired. Public statements Reed and Wan made late last year confirm the truth about why the city fired Cochran.

"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 citizens ... ," Reed said in November of last year to explain why he suspended Cochran.

"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 that same month.

"The only one engaged in discrimination here is the city," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. "The city exonerated Chief Cochran from any discrimination, but then it cited the need to tolerate diverse views as the reason for firing him. That demonstrates the city's hypocrisy as well as the true reason for why it fired the chief: It simply didn't like his religious beliefs—an unjustifiable reason for firing any public employee."

Jonathan Crumly and Garland Hunt, two of more than 2,500 private attorneys allied with ADF, are serving as local counsel in Cochran v. City of Atlanta, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division.

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