Reed terminates fire chief following book controversy

Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, the author of a controversial book that some say promotes anti-gay sentiments and others defend as a valid expression of religious views, was dismissed from his job Tuesday, the same day he returned from a month-long suspension.

A clearly agitated Mayor Kasim Reed said he decided to terminate Cochran not just because the fire chief didn’t consult him before publishing the 2013 book, but because Cochran spoke out about his suspension, despite being told to withhold public comment during an investigation into his leadership.

Reed said the firing had nothing to do with Cochran’s faith: “His religious decisions are not the basis of the problem. His judgment is the basis of the problem.”

Cochran, in his own press conference following Reed’s fiery announcement, said he refused the option to retire Tuesday because he believes he has done nothing wrong.

Cochran, who served as Atlanta’s fire chief under former mayor Shirley Franklin in 2008 and later as President Barack Obama’s U.S. fire administrator, said the city’s investigation failed to find evidence of discrimination.

“I am not apologetic for writing the book,” he said. “I believe that, for Christian men to be all that God has called us to be, we have to overcome a stronghold of condemnation. Everything I wrote in the book is based on scripture, not opinion.”

Among the passages city leaders found troubling in Cochran’s 162-page book, “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” was a definition of “uncleanness” as: “whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, and all other forms of sexual perversion.”

And, writing about sexual relationships, he said that “since God made sex for procreation, he only intended it to be between a man and a woman.” Those who live without God’s purpose, he wrote, “pursue sexual fulfillment through multiple partners, with the opposite sex, same sex and sex outside of marriage and many other vile, vulgar and inappropriate ways.”

Cochran, a deacon at Elizabeth Baptist Church, said the book is a result of lesson plans he prepared for various men’s Bible study groups and that he didn’t intend to be “hurtful to anyone.” He acknowledged distributing the book to some members of the fire department.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender “citizens deserve the right to express their beliefs regarding sexual orientation, and deserve to be respected for their positions without hate and discrimination,” he said. “But Christians also have the right to express their beliefs regarding sexual orientation and be respected for their position without hate and without discrimination.”

Reed said in November that such writings were inconsistent with the city’s employment policies. While Cochran consulted the city’s ethics officer before publishing the book, Reed said that Nina Hickson did not grant approval.

But Cochran has a differing account. He said he received verbal clearance from Hickson regarding book, and therefore didn’t believe he needed to consult Reed. What’s more, Cochran said, he also gave a copy of the book to the mayor’s office in January 2014, and the mayor later confirmed receiving it. A Reed spokeswoman said the mayor receives “hundreds” of books a year.

Hickson, for her part, said while she discussed the possibility of a book about “leadership” with Cochran, the issue never went to the ethics board, as required, for approval.

Cochran acknowledged speaking publicly about his suspension to religious groups, explaining that he was told by the administration not to speak the media, specifically, about the matter.

The veteran firefighter has become a central figure in a brewing fight over religious liberty. Religious groups, including the Georgia Baptist Convention, have rallied around Cochran, decrying his punishment as an impingement on freedom of speech and religion.

Timothy Head — executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a Duluth-based grass-roots conservative group launched by former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed — said he was disappointed in Cochran’s dismissal.

“By no means do I think that any elected official or public servant should be able to impose their specific world view on employees in a professional workplace,” Head said. “I don’t think that’s appropriate. I also don’t think that is what was happening here.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Georgia Equality, said while everyone is entitled to personal views,“It is very difficult when someone brings those views into the workplace in a way that really denigrates others. … It was very troubling to think that he would lead a diverse workforce when he has been so public about his views equating gay people to beasts and being unclean.”

Reed said he labored over terminating Cochran, who he said “added value” to his team. Indeed, under Cochran’s watch, the fire department’s public protection classification was raised to first in class, an indication the city’s response to fires improved.

Many in the public have contacted the mayor to express their support for Cochran. Reed said he’s been inundated by thousands of angry emails and calls over the issue, even to his family.

Reed blamed the chief for the hostility he’s endured.

“My faith in God does not take a backseat to anyone else’s faith and I deeply resent the emails and phone calls to my home and to my wife during the holidays when I’m spending time with my daughter, literally calling me the anti-Christ,” Reed said. “So this is what Chief Cochran brought to my door because he made a judgment that he should write a book that contains material that is clearly inflammatory and never asked me how I felt about it.”

Cochran did not say whether he plans to pursue legal action against the city, but said of his termination: “I believe there was plenty of objective evidence that should have exonerated me on all accounts.”

Reed announced that Deputy Chief Joel Baker will serve as the interim fire chief.

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