Tag archives: Kelvin Cochran

Cochran Complaint Paints Compelling Picture of Discrimination Based on Religious Beliefs

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.

February 18, 2015

Today, Chief Cochran filed a complaint in federal court initiating a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta and Mayor Reed for firing him for holding Christian beliefs.

While we are all familiar with the background on Chief Cochran, and the City of Atlanta’s disappointing attempts to defend itself, the complaint reveals quite a compelling picture of Chief Cochran’s experience of religious discrimination.

It shows how Chief Cochran was motivated to excellence by firefighters who saved his house when he was growing up in a poor, single-parent family in Shreveport, Louisiana. From that point, he worked hard, guided by faith, to achieve excellence in what he did.

Chief Cochran had an exemplary career, going on to conduct firefighter training, lead Shreveport’s fire department, then lead Atlanta’s fire department, and finally head the U.S. Fire Administration in Washington, before returning to take charge of Atlanta’s fire department only after Mayor Reed himself “begged” him to come back to Atlanta.

The complaint continues by observing that Chief Cochran was awarded Fire Chief of the Year by Fire Chief magazine in 2012, for which he was showered with praise from Mayor Reed. And under Chief Cochran’s tenure, for the first time in Atlanta’s history, the Insurance Services Office gave the city a Class 1 Public Protection Classification (PPC) rating, an honor shared by only 60 cities nationwide, which resulted in lower insurance premiums.

In addition, as he explains, the chief promoted the development of workplace policies ensuring all his firefighters were treated fairly, and worked with LGBT employees (who he knew were LGBT) to make this happen. More than most, Chief Cochran knows what it’s like to be excluded; he had to overcome racial hostility earlier in his career.

Despite all this, when some protested Chief Cochran’s self-published Christian book, which had been in print for almost a year with no complaints, the city immediately suspended the chief without even discussing the matter with him beforehand. The book, which is about how to live for God, mentions human sexuality only in passing.

As described in his complaint, when the chief was suspended, the mayor explicitly distanced himself from Chief Cochran’s “beliefs” — thus revealing it is his religious beliefs which are the real problem here.

Yet the city is prohibited from firing Chief Cochran based on his religious beliefs. If Chief Cochran can prove that his beliefs were the reason he was fired, he will likely emerge victorious.

The chief will have plenty of avenues to prove the religious discrimination against him, having brought claims under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause for retaliation based on protected religious speech, along with allegations of viewpoint discrimination, over-breadth, prior restraint /unbridled discretion, and unconstitutional conditions. He follows these up with claims under the No Religious Tests Clause of Article VI of the Constitution, Free Exercise and Freedom of Association protections of the First Amendment, and an Establishment Clause claim based on hostility towards religion. Chief Cochran next alleges a Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection violation based on unequal treatment based on his beliefs, and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process violations based on vagueness and deprivation of his liberty interests and procedural due process rights. He also plans on amending his complaint to include a Title VII religious discrimination claim at the appropriate time.

As a remedy, the chief asks to be reinstated in his job, that the city be prevented from taking such action against others, and that it admit it violated his rights here, in addition to other damages.

While his case is procedurally in the beginning stage, Chief Cochran’s complaint certainly paints a strong picture in support of his claims. Why would any mayor want to fire a man with his performance and history as a firefighter? They wouldn’t.

This part of the factual record — much of which is not disputable — makes it look like the chief was fired for the impermissible reasons described in his complaint. In addition, Chief Cochran paints a picture of how the city did not even follow proper procedures in terminating him.

Mayor Reed himself “begged” Chief Cochran to come back to Atlanta, and any mayor with a large fire department to run would want a man like the chief running it.

When this type of employee is fired, a reasonable observer is more likely to conclude they were fired for an impermissible reason — in this case, for their religious expression.

City of Atlanta: No orthodox Christians need apply

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.

January 8, 2015

At a press conference held on Tuesday this week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fired Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief Kelvin Cochran. How did we get here?

One year ago, Chief Cochran wrote a book discussing orthodox Christianity, including a mention of how God views homosexual practice. The book had been around for a year, with no problems. Yet when one of Atlanta’s secret thought police secretly uncovered the not-so-secret book, a hullabaloo erupted. All the usual suspects contributed to a hearty round of hand-wringing and head-shaking.

Mayor Reed was “deeply disturbed” and indignantly proclaimed he would not tolerate such discrimination within his administration.

Unless that discrimination is against Christians, of course.

Perhaps the mayor should take up his feeling of being “deeply disturbed” with God. Chief Cochran was only quoting the Bible. He didn’t come up with the ideas he expressed.

The mayor’s office then opened an investigation because “there are a number of passages” in Chief Cochran’s book “that directly conflict with the city’s nondiscrimination policies.”

Well, who knew? The views one expresses in one’s own writings have to now conform to official city policies.

If this wasn’t bad enough, let’s turn to the chief’s firing. In a press conference held yesterday, the mayor claimed:

Chief Cochran’s “actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse workforce. Every single employee under the Fire Chief’s command deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions. His actions and his statements during the investigation and his suspension have eroded my confidence in his ability to convey that message.”

I want to make my position and the city of Atlanta’s position crystal clear,” Reed continued. “The city’s nondiscrimination policy … really unequivocally states that we will not discriminate.” Thus, according the mayor, any individual who violates that policy or “creates an environment where that is a concern” will notcontinue his or her employment withthe city government.

The only problem is: there is no evidence here of any discrimination whatsoever! There never has been.

In essence, the chief was fired by the mayor and his allies because (if they were honest) they “think he might discriminate against gay people.” Never mind there is zero evidence of any such discrimination. Simply put, no one can point to any adverse action Chief Cochran has ever taken against someone based on their homosexuality! If they could, we certainly would have heard about it, given the frenzied fears of “potential” future discrimination and a “possible” hostile work environment. But because that’s all the mayor and his allies have to go on, all we’ve heard about is the “possibility” of future discrimination.

This is a clear case of someone being eliminated from their position because of their views alone. This is even worse than other recent cases of disapproval of orthodox Christian views among public figures in the United States. Without exaggeration, we can say we have just seen the government monitoring personal expression for approval or disapproval, backed up by power of law.

But if he’s going to bury Chief Cochran, Mayor Reed needs all the ammunition he can get. So he scrambles, and tacks on another “justification”: “Chief Cochran also failed to notify me, as Mayor and Chief Executive of the City of Atlanta and his employer, of his plans to publish the book and its inflammatory content. This demonstrates an irreconcilable lapse in judgment.”

Never mind that Chief Cochran plausibly describes how he not only notified the mayor of his plans to publish the book, but provided him in January 2014 with a pre-publication copy for his review, which the mayor told him he planned on reading during an upcoming trip.

Reed didn’t even stop there. He claimed Chief Cochran published his book in violation of standards of conduct which require approval from the Ethics Officer and the Board of Ethics.

Never mind that, as Cochran reports, not only did the director of Atlanta’s ethics office give him permission to write the book, but he was also given permission to mention in his biography that he was the city’s fire chief.

Well, which is it, Mayor Reed? The “nondiscrimination” issue. Or the ethics issue? On the latter, the chief and mayor offer contradicting testimony. On the former, the mayor doesn’t even offer any evidence whatsoever!

These developments are likely to cause widespread consternation among Christians, but they should alarm anyone concerned about freedom of expression in general.

At the press conference, the mayor was in vehement and repeated denial that Chief Cochran was fired for his religious beliefs. The mayor would have us believe that “[t]his is about judg[]ment” and “not about religious freedom” or “free speech.” According to the mayor, “[j]udg[]ment is the basis of the problem.” But Mayor Reed knows he is wrong, which is why he is so defensive about there being no “religious persecution”—he clearly knows it is taking place.

In addition, the mayor was accompanied by his cabinet and Alex Wan (the city’s lone gay council member) at the press conference. If the issue is about ethics, why have the lone gay council member flanking you as you make the announcement? For that matter, why not have an ethics officer?

Indeed, the issue is about orthodox Christian views. And if it’s about “judgment” on the expression of such views, we are in a brave new world.

Chief Cochran must vigorously stand for his rights. All who care about the right to free expression without government intrusion and interference should stand with him, even if they disagree with him in this case. For when the law fails to protect one, it soon fails to protect all.

As we are reminded by Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who was an outspoken opponent of Hitler and ultimately was confined to a concentration camp:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

NOTE: Stand with Chief Cochran by signing our petition supporting him at http://frc.org/fired

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