Ex-Atlanta fire chief sues city for religious discrimination

The suit says the city violated Cochran's constitutional rights by firing him because of his beliefs concerning same-sex marriage

Los Angeles Times

ATLANTA — The Atlanta fire chief who was fired last month after publishing a book that referred to homosexuality as "vile" and compared same-sex relationships to bestiality has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the city and Mayor Kasim Reed, claiming he was the victim of religious bias.

Former Chief Kelvin Cochran was dismissed by Reed on Jan. 6, after self-publishing a book titled “Who Told You That You Were Naked?" a missive that details his personal religious beliefs and has been decried as anti-gay by the LGBT community and local fire union officials.

Reed has said he fired Cochran because he lacked judgment and management skills. Reed has also contended that the ex-chief violated the city's code of conduct because he published the book without permission and distributed the literature to city employees who did not want to read it.

But the suit, filed in federal court Wednesday, contends the city violated Cochran's constitutional rights by firing him because of his beliefs concerning same-sex marriage.

“It is not the chief who has a problem with diversity, it is the mayor and the city," said David Cortman, senior attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed the suit on Cochran's behalf. "Apparently the new definition of diversity for them includes only those who agree with their point of view.”

Anne Torres, Reed's chief spokeswoman, said again Wednesday that Cochran's religious beliefs had nothing to do with the decision to fire him. In a statement, Torres said the city took issue with Cochran's decision to distribute the book to members of his administration, a move that "risked sending a message to his staffers that they were expected to embrace his beliefs."

"The religious nature of his book is not the reason he is no longer employed by the City of Atlanta," her statement read. "The totality of his conduct — including the way he handled himself during his suspension after he agreed not to make public comments during the investigation — reflected poor judgment and failure to follow clearly defined work protocols."

Cortman said Cochran is seeking to be reinstated as fire chief, a post he had held since 2010, and to reclaim lost wages.

Speaking briefly at a news conference in Atlanta, Cochran said he should not have to mute his own personal beliefs in order to serve the city.

“I would gladly lay down my life in service to save another life, in spite of their differences or their demographic, because that’s what firefighters do," he said. "The one thing we should not have to sacrifice are our God-given freedoms. The freedom of speech, and the freedom of religion.”

Cochran also filed a Title VII complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month, claiming he was the victim of religious discrimination.

The former chief, who also serves as a deacon at the Elizabeth Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta, has said he was driven to pen the 162-page book early in 2014 after developing a lesson plan with his weekly Bible study group.

Reed has repeatedly said Cochran's beliefs had nothing to do with his termination.

“The truth is that I am a man of deep faith myself, and we are a city of laws,” Reed said in a statement last month. “I believe [Cochran’s] actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse workforce."

According to the lawsuit, Cochran gave Reed a copy of the book in January 2014, nearly a full year before the mayor decided to take action. Cochran also says he was given permission to publish the book by Nina Hickson, the city of Atlanta's ethics officer, in late 2013, according to court filings.

During the news conference, Cortman said the city policy that requires employees to seek permission to publish a book is not written in the city's code of conduct and has never been enforced before.

Torres, however, pointed to the findings of an Atlanta Law Department report on Cochran's firing as evidence that the written policy existed.

A summary of the findings, made public last month, cites a portion of the city's code of conduct that says city commissioners must obtain prior approval before they engage in any other for-profit enterprises. Torres says Cochran has been selling his book on Amazon.com.

"Commissioners ... may engage in private employment or render services for private interest only upon obtaining prior written approval from the board of ethics," the ordinance reads.

The controversy has split the city of Atlanta, which sits at the center of the Bible Belt but is also home to one of the largest concentrations of gays and lesbians in the American South.

The city's largest fire union commended Reed's decision to fire Cochran, but petitions by the Georgia Baptist Convention and American Family Foundation in support of the deposed chief have, combined, gathered more than 85,000 signatures.

“I was fired simply because of what I believe," Cochran said Wednesday. "Those who demanded that I be fired have said, publicly and repeatedly, that the long-held mainstream Christian beliefs expressed in my book should cost me my job.”

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