Atlanta Mayor says court battle with former fire chief was too costly

A lengthy legal battle stemming from the firing of former Atlanta fire chief Kevin Cochran who penned an inflamatory book that condemned homosexuality has ended with the city agreeing to pay the ousted employee $1.2 million.

The case drew national attention and led to a two-and-a-half-year highly publicized legal battle  between Cochran, who authored the 162-page book that compared homosexuality with bestiality, and the city, which fired him in January of 2015. The city concluded that a federal court ruling in the case from December left taxpayers exposed to an even larger payout if they didn't settle with Cochran. The city will be paying at least some to his lawyers, which include a legal group out of Arizona that has advocated for anti-gay policies.

“The comments of Kelvin Cochran were not reflective of who Atlanta is as a tolerant and inclusive city,” a spokesperson for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement. “While the start of this litigation preceded our Administration, based upon findings of the Court that could have resulted in tax payers paying millions of dollars in damages and litigation fees, a negotiated settlement was recommended by legal counsel.”

After Cochran published a book titled "Who Told You That You Are Naked?," former Mayor Kasim Reed in January 2015 fired him, drawing national attention. The Alliance Defending Freedom Fund, a conservative Christian legal group based in Arizona, rushed  to his aid. The group has fought legal battles across the country against gay marriage. The group's website says it's purpose is for standing "against attempts to redefine marriage—to make marriage something that it's not" and working "together to rebuild a healthy marriage culture."

Reed said Cochran's actions had undermined the fire chief's ability to lead and eroded trust within the department. But Reed also cited rules requiring Cochran to receive clearance from the city's ethic's office before publishing his book.

Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran speaks to members of the press after his hearing at Richard B. Russell Federal Building on Friday, November 17, 2017. Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran filed a federal civil rights lawsuit the city, saying he was terminated in 2015 because of his religion. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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In December, U. S. District Judge Leigh Martin May partly sided with the city, saying that concerns about Cochran’s ability to lead seemed to be legitimate.

“Because Plaintiff expressed his opinion that the death of all individuals who engage in homosexual and extramarital sex would be celebrated, it was not unreasonable for the City to fear public erosion of trust in the Fire Department,” May wrote.

But May also said that city rules requiring Cochran to obtain the permission of the city’s ethics board before publishing his book were unconstitutional.

“This policy would prevent an employee from writing and selling a book on golf or badminton on his own time and, without prior approval, would subject him to firing,” May wrote. “It is unclear to the Court how such an outside employment would ever affect the City’s ability to function, and the City provides no evidence to justify it.”

After meeting in executive session on Monday, the council approved a resolution settling the lawsuit with a 11-3 vote. The resolution says that the $1.2 million includes Cochran's attorneys fees.

“We believe that the settlement sends a strong message throughout Atlanta and the rest of the country that the government cannot require its permission in advance for someone to speak about their faith on their own time,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel, David Cortman in statement Tuesday. “The First Amendment provides the only permission necessary.”

Reed, in a statement, said the he regretted the council’s decision to approve Cochran’s settlement.

“I believed, and continue to believe, that his actions, decisions, and lack of judgment undermined his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse workforce,” Reed said. “At a time when civil rights, human rights and inclusion are under attack both locally and nationally, this decision sends the wrong message to individuals in the LGBTQ community and to all Atlantans.”