An Atlanta fire chief who was terminated from his position in 2015 and subsequently sued the city on allegations of religious discrimination is claiming victory amid a nearly three-year legal battle against the city.
Kelvin Cochran sued the city of Atlanta after he was fired in January 2015. He has alleged that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed discriminated against him after Cochran wrote a self-published book titled, “Who Told You That You Are Naked?”
Here’s why that matters: The former fire chief’s Christian book reportedly called homosexuality “sexual perversion” and compared it to “bestiality.” Activists reportedly got involved after its publication and the city took action, though Reed argued that the firing hinged not on the contents of the book, but on Cochran not having proper permission to write it.
“I, too, am a person of very deep religious faith … 1 Corinthians 14:40 says, ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’ and I want to make very clear in my judgement that was not done here,” Reed said in 2015, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.. “Chief Cochran’s book … was published in violation of the city’s standards of conduct, which require prior approval of the ethics officer and the board of ethics.”
But it appears this argument didn’t quite hold up in court. Judge Leigh May of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled that these pre-approval rules could constrain free speech and said that the city didn’t define the standards that would be used to determine whether an employee had indeed engaged in a conflict of interest, according to The Associated Press.
Kevin Theriot, the Alliance Defending Freedom attorney who represents Cochran, penned an op-ed on Wednesday explaining why, from his perspective, the former fire chief was victorious in court this week:
Chief Cochran briefly included what the Bible says about the true meaning of marriage and purpose of sex in a men’s devotional book he wrote on his private time. He then published “Who Told You That You Were Naked: Overcoming the Stronghold of Condemnation” on his own dime in 2013.
But when a city councilman found out about his beliefs regarding marriage, he took the book to the H.R. department in November 2014. The mayor initially suspended Chief Cochran for 30 days without pay and ordered him to attend “sensitivity training.” He then fired him in January, stating, “I profoundly disagree with and am deeply disturbed by the sentiments expressed in the paperback . . . .” The Mayor also cited as an additional reason that the Chief didn’t consult with him or get City permission before writing it.
In the end, Theriot said that Wednesday’s ruling protects all Atlanta workers from being forced to get permission to exercise free speech for unrelated work matters.
The reality, however, is that both sides are claiming victory. While May ruled that the city’s policy if demanding that employees get permission before taking outside work is unconstitutional, she didn’t validate Cochran’s claims that the city violated his religious expression and free speech rights, WABE reported.
City attorney Jeremy Berry responded to May’s ruling by saying that the city feels vindicated that “Mayor Reed acted lawfully and appropriately in terminating Mr. Cochran’s employment.”
“The City is pleased that Judge May found in the City’s favor on all major constitutional issues, and specifically rejected Mr. Cochran’s claim that the City violated his due process and other First Amendment rights of freedom of association, free speech, and free exercise of religion,” Berry said.
The legal battle is far from over, as both sides will continue to make their case. On Cochran’s side, attorneys will argue that the former fire chief is owed damages. Meanwhile, the city will defend its pre-clearance regulations that May ruled against.