A federal court is weighing not only former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran’s right to express his beliefs but the right of others as well, religious liberty advocates say.
Photo by Adam Covington
Federal Judge Leigh Martin May heard arguments Nov. 17 in Atlanta regarding the city’s 2015 firing of Cochran. The city terminated Cochran, now a staff member of a Southern Baptist church, after he wrote a men’s devotional book that advocated in a brief section the biblical view of marriage and sexuality, including that homosexual behavior is immoral.
Cochran has requested that Judge May issue a summary judgment in his favor, while the city of Atlanta has asked the same for itself. At the hearing, May indicated a jury trial is likely in the spring on the issues she may not decide in a ruling she expects to issue in December, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The case is among of a mounting number involving employees or business owners whose religious convictions about such issues as same-sex marriage and homosexuality clash with the viewpoint of the government.
Southern Baptist religious freedom advocate Russell Moore said Cochran’s case “should be of concern to every American, not just to those of us who are believers.”
“The government should not be in the business of firing people from their jobs simply because they have religious convictions,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments for Baptist Press (BP). “This heavy-handed bullying of Chief Cochran, if let stand, could end up harming countless numbers of people who hold beliefs that are not approved by the government at the time.”
Kevin Theriot – the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) senior counsel who represented Cochran in the hearing – told BP in an email interview, “This is a very significant case for all people of faith because if Chief Cochran loses, it means people of all faiths who believe in biblical marriage can be discriminated against by the government.”
Theriot, in an earlier written release, had noted, “A religious or ideological test can’t be used to fire a public servant, but that’s what the city did, as the facts of this case clearly demonstrate.
“Chief Cochran is one of the most accomplished fire chiefs in the nation, but the city’s actions place every city employee in jeopardy who may hold to a belief that city officials don’t like,” Theriot said.
The city argued that Cochran’s viewpoint was not the primary basis for his firing, saying the fire chief violated its policy in publishing the book, according to The Journal-Constitution. ADF, however, contends comments by city officials demonstrate the book’s viewpoint was the reason for Cochran’s termination.
Atlanta City Council member Alex Wan told The Journal-Constitution when Cochran was suspended prior to his firing, “First and foremost, I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, but when you’re a city employee, and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”
A lawyer for the city said in court that Cochran listed his fire department title in the book without permission and failed to inform the city of its publication, The Journal-Constitution reported. Cochran says a city official verbally approved both the publication of the book and the use of his title in the book, which he wrote on his own time.
The city’s requirement that employees obtain approval before writing a book is clearly unconstitutional, Theriot said.
The city conducted an investigation but found Cochran had not discriminated against anyone stemming from his religious beliefs, according to ADF.
ADF is hopeful May will grant summary judgment to Cochran regarding his free speech and free exercise of religion claims “because the city has admitted it considered his religious speech when suspending and firing him,” Theriot told BP, saying he is confident the judge will issue “a very well-reason opinion.”
After the hearing, Cochran said the city is “unjustly accusing” him of the very thing – discrimination – he has experienced and been committed to eliminate in his profession.
“It is still unthinkable to me that the very faith and patriotism that inspired my professional achievements and drove me to treat all people with love and equity is what the government ultimately used to bring my dream career to an end,” Cochran said in written remarks prepared for a post-hearing news conference.
“In my life I have experienced firsthand the negative attitudes, racial slurs and discrimination because of the color of my skin,” Cochran said. “Because of that, I’ve lived by the conviction that, should I ever be in a position of leadership, that I would never allow someone to have the same experience of discrimination I did as a minority.”
In that vein, Cochran said he created the Atlanta Fire Rescue Doctrine to establish “a culture of justice and equity” and to seek to remove “racism, sexism, favoritism, cronyism, anything that would interfere with a wholesome work environment for any people group within the fire department.”
Cochran is chief operating officer of Elizabeth Baptist Church, a multi-site church in the Atlanta area.
He served on the Resolutions Committee at the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention meeting and presented a resolution affirming Southern Baptists’ commitment to biblical sexuality and urging protection for religious free exercise. Messengers approved the resolution.
Cochran was one of the first African Americans to serve with the Shreveport (La.) Fire Department and became its fire chief. He became Atlanta’s fire chief before President Barack Obama appointed him as U.S. Fire Administrator. He returned to Atlanta and served as its fire chief for five years before his termination.
The legalization of same-sex marriage has resulted in clashes between the rights of wedding vendors – such as cake designers, florists and photographers – and those of gay couples.
The first case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court in the growing legal skirmish between religious liberty and sexual liberty will be argued Dec. 5. The case involves Colorado cake artist Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakeshop.
Phillips, who is a Christian, declined to design and decorate a cake for the wedding of two men because of his belief that marriage is only between a male and a female. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ordered Phillips to create custom cakes for same-sex ceremonies or quit designing wedding cakes, and the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the commission’s decision.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)