Former Atlanta fire chief claims discrimination in civil rights suit

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

A federal judge on Friday had questions about why Mayor Kasim Reed dismissed Atlanta's fire chief in 2015, asking attorneys representing the city if the decision was based primarily on the contents of the chief's controversial book or his insubordination.

Fire chief Kelvin Cochran was terminated after he wrote and distributed a book that some considered anti-gay. In response, the chief filed a civil rights suit arguing religious discrimination. The city of Atlanta says the dismissal had nothing to do with the book's content and that Cochran was fired for not following city policy that calls for getting prior approval of the work. He then defied Reed when he spoke out during a suspension he was given as punishment, even though he was told not to, an attorney for the city said.

Friday, U.S. District Judge Leigh May asked attorneys if Cochran would have been dismissed had he written a book about golf instead.

“There would have been discipline imposed,” said Kathryn Hinton, an attorney representing the city. “I believe the content itself was not the ultimate reason.”

There are several questions May will have to weigh in the federal suit, which pits religious liberty and freedom of speech against the government's right to maintain a comfortable work environment. She can decide all or some of the issues, and said she will likely come to a decision next month. May said there is a good chance there will be a jury trial in the spring on whatever issues she cannot resolve.

Cochran first published his book, "Who Told You That You Are Naked," in 2013. He said it was geared toward Christian men for Bible study and was intended to help them use religion to become better husbands and fathers. It describes those who are gay, not Christian or having extra-martial sex, among others, as the "naked."

“He compares them to murderers, rapists and pedophiles,” said David Gevertz, an attorney for the city of Atlanta. “You can’t make a distinction between or among them.”

Still, Gevertz said, it wasn’t the content of Cochran’s book that was problematic. It was the fact that he listed his job as Atlanta’s fire chief at the beginning of the book and didn’t inform anyone that he planned to publish it, which was against city policy.

Kevin Theriot — an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom who is representing Cochran — said everyone, including Cochran, struggles with sin. Atlanta’s attorneys, he said, “completely mischaracterized” the book when they said Cochran wrote that God would rejoice when the so-called naked perished. The city, in part, used that as a basis for its defense of Cochran’s firing, saying Atlanta ran the risk of lawsuits from applicants or city employees who knew of Cochran’s views and felt that he discriminated against them in making job-related decisions.

“I never discriminated against anyone,” Cochran said after the hearing, reading from a prepared statement. He added that he was “shocked” that writing the book jeopardized his career, saying, “No one deserved to be marginalized or driven out of their profession because of their faith.”

Cochran took about a dozen copies of the book to work and distributed them to people he thought were like-minded, including giving one to a subordinate during a performance review, Atlanta attorneys said. One person who saw the book brought it to the attention of a union representative, and word of it spread in 2014.

Cochran was suspended for a month without pay that November and was ordered to undergo sensitivity training. In the meantime, an investigation into whether Cochran was discriminating against employees on the basis of religion or anything else showed that support for him by his subordinates had eroded, Gevertz said. Additionally, Cochran helped orchestrate a public relations campaign that resulted in supporters calling and emailing Reed.

“He had no desire to return to this position,” Gevertz said. “He blew it up on the way out the door.”

Cochran was fired Jan. 6, 2015, the day he was supposed to return to work from his suspension. He filed suit the next month.

Cochran said he had “no regrets” about his actions, and said he had never before been in a situation where he felt he had to “scale back” his religious beliefs.

“I had no indication that living out your faith could actually cost you your career,” he said.

In court, May and the attorneys talked at length about balancing the city’s interest in functioning efficiently against Cochran’s freedoms of religion and speech. They also discussed whether Atlanta had the right to review Cochran’s book and ask him to make changes, such as deleting the reference to his job as fire chief. And they talked about whether Cochran’s actions had the potential to disrupt operations in the city.

May said the issues under review were “extremely complex.” Speech that may be allowed on a sidewalk isn’t always permitted in a workplace, she said.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.

Robert Godfrey, representing Atlanta, said he feels good about where the case stands. Theriot, representing Cochran, said he is hopeful the former chief will be compensated for his lost wages. Cochran now works for his church, but the suit asks that his job be reinstated.