US Court: Atlanta Erred in Axing Christian Fire Chief

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by Stephen Wynne  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  January 9, 2018   

Judge rules officials can't restrict staff's free speech rights

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ATLANTA (ChurchMilitant.com) - Alleging termination for his Christian beliefs, a decorated fire chief has won a religious liberty victory.

Late last month, in Cochran v. City of Atlanta, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled the City of Atlanta wrongfully dismissed Kelvin Cochran, its fire chief from 2010–15.

A devout Christian, Cochran wrote a devotional book — on his own time — that included a brief mention of the biblical perspective on homosexuality. After the work was published in 2013, word of the passages upholding Christian teaching on homosexuality eventually filtered back to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. 

 

In November 2014, Reed suspended Cochran without pay for 30 days and ordered him to undergo "sensitivity" training.

At that time, the mayor announced, "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 — regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race and religious beliefs."

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Kasim Reed, former Atlanta mayor

Returning to work in early January 2015, Cochran was fired, the mayor telling him, "When you're a city employee, and [your] thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city's, you have to check them at the door."

Despite the mayor's comment — and others like it — city officials insisted Cochran wasn't fired for his religious beliefs. Instead, they suggested, he was let go because he hadn't obtained workplace permission to publish his book.

Cochran, they said, was in violation of the city's "pre-clearance" policy restricting non-work related speech, which rendered the city vulnerable to employment discrimination claims.

After his dismissal, Cochran was resolute. "I'm not apologetic for writing the book," he told reporters. "Everything I wrote in the book is based on Scriptures, not my opinions."

The chief legally challenged his dismissal. With Christian legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) representing him, Cochran filed suit against the City of Atlanta, arguing that he was fired for engaging in religious speech.

Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot argued before the Georgia court on Cochran's behalf. On December 20, almost three years after the chief was axed, the judge ruled in his favor.

After the ruling, Theriot reflected on the lessons of the case.

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.

"Government officials can't force employees to get permission before engaging in free speech," he said. "As the court found, the city can't leave such decisions to the whims of government officials."

"This ruling benefits not only Chief Cochran but also other employees who want to write books or speak about matters unrelated to work," he observed. "Atlanta can no longer force them to get permission or deny them permission just because certain officials disagree with the views expressed."

"The potential for stifled speech," Theriot added, "far outweighs an unsupported assertion of harm."

Though Cochran v. City of Atlanta applies only to residents of the northern district of Georgia, the implications of the case extend much further. It sets a precedent, alerting government employers they are limited in restricting the speech of their staff when that speech is not work-related. 

Pondering his victory, Cochran notes, "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." 

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