Embattled fire chief, city meet in first court hearing

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.”

Godfrey said Cochran “broke trust” with Reed, who expects his cabinet members to be “committed to the city’s policy of non-discrimination.” Cochran’s attorneys point out that that a city investigation found no evidence of discrimination in a review of his work.

In Wednesday’s hearing, attorneys debated Atlanta’s motion to dismiss Cochran’s complaint on the grounds that it fails to meet the threshold for a constitutional violation. May said she’ll issue an order on that motion soon, a decision that will determine whether Cochran’s complaint moves forward.

Cochran, who left during the hearing, did not speak to the judge or reporters. The Alliance Defending Freedom, however, posted a statement attributed to Cochran on its website in which the former chief said he wrote the book “to help Christian men in their walk with God” and was fired because Reed and Atlanta didn’t agree with his views.

The fire chief went on to say the court case is part of a broader “national struggle” in which people are losing their jobs and businesses because of their faith.

“I’m here today not just for myself, but for every religious person in America who does not want to live in fear of facing termination for expressing their faith. I’m here today to vindicate the God-given freedoms every American is guaranteed under the United States Constitution and federal law.”

Reed has maintained that he fired Cochran for breaking protocol in publishing the book and then speaking publicly — despite being told not to — during his suspension. Cochran’s attorneys say he consulted Atlanta Ethics Officer Nina Hickson before publishing the book, which is ranked 1,010 in Bible study books for sale on Amazon.com.

Myrna Gale, CEO of 3G Publishing in Loganville, declined to say how many copies Cochran has sold, but noted: “He was doing great on sales even before this happened.”

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