Metro Weekly

Judge upholds firing of anti-gay fire chief in Atlanta

But court also finds rule requiring employees to receive permission for outside employment is unconstitutional

Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran – Photo: Bill Koplitz.

Atlanta’s mayor was justified in firing an anti-gay fire chief, a federal judge has found.

U.S. District Judge Leigh May has ruled that the city did not discriminate against Kelvin Cochran or violate his First Amendment rights by dismissing him and Mayor Kasim Reed (D) was within his rights to do so.

May also found that the city did not discriminate against Cochran based on his viewpoint or violate his due process rights, reports the Associated Press.

May did, however, find that the city’s rules requiring pre-clearance for city employees who wish to take on outside employment were unconstitutional. She said the rules stifle free speech and fail to define what standards should be used when determining whether an employee has a conflict of interest.

The case stems from Cochran’s decision to write a book called, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” for a men’s Bible study. He self-published the book in late 2013 and gave it to some subordinates.

Among other things, the book claims that LGBTQ people and those who have sex outside of marriage are “naked,” meaning they are deemed to be sinners, according to Cochran’s religious beliefs.

A year later, an assistant fire chief later raised concerns about the book’s statements regarding homosexuality, especially since Cochran specifically mentioned his role as the city’s fire chief.

In November 2014, Reed suspended Cochran for 30 days without pay, in order to discipline him for selling his book without notifying the city or obtaining prior written approval. The city also began investigating whether Cochran had used his position to improperly impose his views on subordinates in the workplace.

Reed’s legal team has maintained that Cochran was told not to make public comments on his suspension, but did so anyway, violating a direct order from the mayor, who serves as his boss.

Cochran then attempted to cast himself as a man wronged for expressing his religious beliefs, even organizing a public relations campaign to challenge his suspension. Angry social conservatives subsequently sent more than 17,000 angry emails, some using racial slurs, to Reed. (Both Cochran and Reed are African-American.)

Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Cochran and attempted to hold up his firing as an example of how liberal governments are infringing on personal freedoms, declared victory, even though they had originally argued that the actual firing of Cochran was unconstitutional, not just the requirement for pre-clearance.

Nonetheless, Kevin Theriot, an attorney for ADF, wrote in a blog post that the ruling is significant for all city employees, who can no longer be forced to obtain permission from the city of Atlanta for “speech unrelated to work.”

“This win protects all city employees wanting to engage in ‘controversial’ speech — whether that be what the Bible has to say about marriage or what Charlie Brown and the Bible have to say about Christmas,” Theriot wrote.

But the city of Atlanta also declared victory, noting that Reed acted lawfully an appropriately in firing Cochran.

“This lawsuit was never about religious beliefs or the First Amendment,” City Attorney Jeremy Berry said in a statement. “Rather it is an employment matter involving an executive in charge of more than 1,100 firefighters and tasked to lead by example.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com