Ousted fire chief at center of religious liberty fight goes to court

Former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who described homosexuality as a perversion akin to bestiality in a book he authored two years ago, is entitled to his religious beliefs, attorneys for Cochran and the City of Atlanta agreed Wednesday.

But his faith isn’t the reason he was fired last January, Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration argued in a federal court hearing over his dismissal.

Cochran was ousted following a month-long suspension and investigation into his Christian guide for men, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” The 162-page book, which Cochran distributed to some members of the fire department, caused an outcry because of a passage in which he described both homosexuality and bestiality as “unclean” acts.

Cochran — who quickly became the focus of a national fight over religious liberty — believes he was fired because of his faith and filed a federal lawsuit. But Atlanta attorneys argued his personal views were irrelevant until he brought them into the workplace. Once he did, they said, it became an employment matter because Cochran broke city protocols.

“This book was published a year before it came to the attention of the city. Nothing happened to him until he brought the book into the workplace,” Atlanta attorney Robert Godfrey argued before U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May.

Cochran was never told he couldn’t hold those views, Godfrey said, “but he certainly can’t bring that mess to City Hall, and that’s what he did.”

Attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom argued that Cochran, a decorated firefighter, is protected by the First Amendment. They say Reed violated his constitutional rights when dismissing him after complaints arose about the book. What’s more, they contend that Reed stigmatized Cochran during his ouster and has cost him the ability to find new employment.

“He was fired solely because of his speech and beliefs expressed by that speech,” said Kevin Theriot, senior counsel with Alliance. “… Certainly the mayor has discretion to hire and fire, but that discretion ends when it violates the Constitution of the United States.”

To hear what Cochran is saying about the case and what Wednesday’s hearing could mean for his legal battle, visit myAJC.com.

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