Kelvin Cochran is a highly decorated fire fighter. So much so that President Obama lured him away from his position as Fire Chief in Atlanta in 2009 to become the U.S. Fire Administrator for the U.S. Fire Administration. But the City of Atlanta begged him to return to his former job, and in 2010 he did so, and successfully led the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department until 2014, when he was unceremoniously suspended and later fired on January 6, 2015.
Why was he fired? It turns out that Cochran is a devout Christian. He led a men’s Bible study at his church on the subject of God’s purpose for men. His study led him to write and self-publish a book in 2013 entitled “Who Told You That You Were Naked? Overcoming the Stronghold of Condemnation.” On approximately six pages of the 162-page book, Cochran addressed Biblical standards of sexual morality, including teachings concerning sex as reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. He wrote that sex outside the confines of marriage between a man and woman – including fornication, homosexual acts, and all other types of non-marital sex – is contrary to God’s will.
Although created on his own time, Cochran sought and received permission from the City to write the book. He gave copies of the book as gifts to the Mayor and certain members of the City Council, and a few employees of the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department. When the passages concerning homosexuality were brought to the attention of an openly gay City Councilmember, a series of meetings led to Cochran’s suspension and, later, to his termination.
The Mayor himself admitted the anti-Christian sentiment behind the firing: “I want to be clear that the material in Chief Cochran’s book is not representative of my personal beliefs, and is inconsistent with the Administration’s work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all of her citizens – regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race and religious beliefs.”
Litigation ensued, as Cochran and his attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom sought to vindicate the Fire Chief’s free speech and freedom of religion claims. In December, 2017, a federal court ruled that the City had no right to restrict or punish Cochran for his non-work speech (i.e., his book). That preliminary ruling prompted the City to enter into settlement negotiations with Cochran, culminating in a $1.2 million dollar payment announced in October, 2018.
Although a great win for free speech, especially for religious speech, there is one note of concern arising from this case. The federal judge who ruled in Cochran’s favor on the basis of freedom of speech did not, as he might have, also rule that the City had violated Cochran’s freedom of religion under either the federal or Georgia constitution. This glaring omission, in a case primarily about Cochran’s right to believe and act upon his faith even when it contradicts the views of government, is a warning to Christians to continue to be vigilant in defending religious freedom everywhere, from town halls to the halls of Congress.