The City of Atlanta has agreed to pay a former fire chief fired for writing a book critical of homosexuality $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination.
The City Council voted 11-3 on Oct. 15 to settle all claims in a federal lawsuit filed by Kelvin Cochran, fired as head of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department in 2015 after writing and distributing a self-published book inspired by a church Bible study calling homosexuality a “perversion.”
In December a federal judge ruled the mayor’s office had reasonable grounds to fear the book – which also speculated the Fall could have been prevented if Eve had consulted her husband before eating the forbidden fruit — might hinder Cochran’s ability to relate positively to all fire department employees, but a city policy forbidding high-ranking officials from speaking or writing for money without permission unconstitutionally infringed on his freedom of speech.
Both sides claimed victory when the decision came down, but the city attorney reportedly advised council members in executive session it was in Atlanta’s “best interest” to settle the claim.
Cochran, a deacon at a Southern Baptist church, was suspended after providing copies of the book to between nine and 12 Christian subordinates before the president of the local firefighter’s union read it and considered some of the passages disturbing.
During his 30-day suspension Cochran spoke to groups including the Georgia Baptist Convention executive committee, describing the situation as “spiritual warfare” and a “divine opportunity” to suffer for his faith in Jesus Christ.
Former Mayor Kasim Reed fired Cochran, claiming he violated orders not to comment publicly on his suspension. An investigation by the city found that Cochran violated a section of the city code by not obtaining approval by a board of ethics before publishing the book.
On Dec. 20 U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May ruled against Cochran on claims of free exercise of religion, free speech retaliation, freedom of association retaliation, viewpoint discrimination and the no religious test clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. The judge did rule, however, that the pre-clearance rules gave the city “unbridled discretion” to restrict outside employment requests based on their content.
“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before they engage in free speech,” said Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom. “It also can’t fire them for exercising that First Amendment freedom, causing them to lose both their freedom and their livelihoods.”
Theriot, who argued before the court on Cochran’s behalf last year, said he is “very pleased that the city is compensating Chief Cochran as it should” and hopes the case “will serve as a deterrent to any government that would trample upon the constitutionally protected freedoms of its public servants.”