by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.
January 29, 2015
Last week, Chief Cochran lodged a complaint (known as a “charge of discrimination”) with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging that the City of Atlanta discriminated against him for his religious beliefs when it fired him after he authored a book on Christianity which mentioned homosexuality.
Information emerging publicly to this point (such as the city’s own admission that no one has even alleged that Chief Cochran ever treated anyone unfairly based on their sexual orientation) reveals the chief’s already-strong case for religious discrimination. Chief Cochran’s allegations in his complaint only bolster his case:
After the complaint was filed, the city quickly released the following statement in response.
Former Chief Cochran filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and declared under penalty of perjury that the statements in the charge are true and correct. Unfortunately, the only truthful portions are his statements about his tenure as Chief and the identity of those in the room with him during two meetings. Everything else is patently false.
The City will respond directly to the EEOC at the appropriate time to inform the agency that instead of “unspecified policies,” Mr. Cochran was informed at the time of his suspension that he had failed to follow the City Code in seeking to engage in an outside income-producing venture. He was also informed that the issue was not the religious nature of his book, but the fact that he was espousing theories about certain groups of people that were in conflict with the City’s policy of inclusiveness. He was further informed that there was an issue with his espousing these beliefs while identifying himself as the Atlanta Fire Chief and while falsely claiming that his job description required him to run the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department on the basis of these beliefs. Finally, Mr. Cochran was informed that distributing the book to members of his command staff in the workplace was improper and sent a message to his staffers that they were expected to embrace his beliefs.
Although Mr. Cochran continues to claim that the City Ethics Officer authorized his publication of the book, that claim is as untruthful today as it was when first uttered. Mr. Cochran was told that the City Code required him to get the approval of the Board of Ethics before publishing his book, something he admits he never did.
Mr. Cochran states in his EEOC charge that he was told his faith influenced his leadership style and that this was the reason for his termination. What he was actually told was that his distribution of a book about his beliefs within his department had caused his employees to question his ability to continue to lead a diverse workforce.
The religious nature of his book is not the reason he is no longer employed by the City of Atlanta. 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.
Mr. Cochran continues to make false statements and accusations, even under penalty of perjury to the EEOC. This is just further proof that he has shown himself to be the wrong person for a leadership role in the City of Atlanta.
The city’s response reveals several things:
- The fact that the city feels it needs to immediately and publicly respond to this complaint shows that the city is aware of the public importance of this debate. Typically an immediate public response to a legal filing is more general and cursory than the city’s here. Typically specific and targeted responses like the city’s first appear in the legal response. Yet the city is coming out swinging, which shows it realizes that this public debate over Chief Cochran matters. The city’s behavior here is unusual because now these statements can be used against the city if it contradicts them at all in future legal proceedings (this is typically why lawyers don’t want their clients to talk). Perhaps the city realizes it is losing this battle though, and it is scrambling to catch up a diffuse public support for Chief Cochran.
- The viciousness of the city’s response (accusing Chief Cochran of committing perjury, and the sharpness of the city’s language in disputing him) reveals the nerve that the EEOC complaint touched.
- The city is very sensitive about this being perceived as religious discrimination, but that’s exactly what it is. Specifically, the city says Chief Cochran’s religion is not at issue, but that his “theories about certain groups of people” are a problem—as if those two can be divided. Aside from the fact that this misrepresents Chief Cochran (he didn’t say anything about “groups of people” but spoke of a variety of sexual conduct that any one or more persons may engage in), the city is trying to parse something which can’t be parsed. The chief’s orthodox and faithful Christian views on sexuality are what inform his views of a variety of sexual conduct, including but not limited to homosexual conduct, which he believes (in concert with historic and orthodox Christian teaching) departs from God’s standard. The city is trying to ignore the fact that faithful Christianity directly informs views on sexuality. When the chief is punished for these views, he’s being punished for his religion. Thus this case has everything to do with religion.
If the city forces Chief Cochran to modify his views of sexuality as part of his discussion of his religion in his book, it is forcing him to deny and suppress the expression of his religion. Whatever the city wants to say, this case is all about religion.