A federal court ruled Wednesday that the city of Atlanta’s policies violated the First Amendment when it dismissed its Christian fire chief after he self-published a devotional book that included comments critical of homosexuality.
“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech,” said Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued before the court on behalf of former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran last month.
“In addition, as the court found, the city can’t leave such decisions to the whims of government officials. This ruling benefits not only Chief Cochran, but also other employees who want to write books or speak about matters unrelated to work. Atlanta can no longer force them to get permission or deny them permission just because certain officials disagree with the views expressed.”
As WND previously reported, Cochran sued the city after he was suspended and ordered to take “sensitivity training.” He ultimately was fired when a chapter in his book for men titled “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” was brought to the attention of a homosexual city council member and the mayor.
Cochran’s suit alleged he was the victim of retaliation, discrimination based on his viewpoint, and violation of his constitutionally protected freedoms of religion, association and due process. The due-process claim centered on his allegation that the city fired him without following its own procedures.
Cochran prevailed on the due-process claim in the decision by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The city won all other claims.
The court found the city’s policy banning outside employment without prior approval was overly broad and subjective, giving veto power to supervisors based on their own biases.
With regard to the city’s “pre-clearance” rules, the court wrote in its decision in Cochran v. City of Atlanta: “This policy would prevent an employee from writing and selling a book on golf or badminton on his own time and, without prior approval, would subject him to firing. It is unclear to the Court how such an outside employment would ever affect the City’s ability to function, and the City provides no evidence to justify it. … The potential for stifled speech far outweighs an unsupported assertion of harm.”
The court added that provisions within the rules “do not set out objective standards for the supervisor to employ.”
“This does not pass constitutional muster,” the court concluded.
Cochran’s 162-page devotional book came out of his teaching at his church and was written on his personal time.
“Plaintiff’s book was written primarily for Christian men and is intended to help them fulfill God’s purpose for their lives. According to Plaintiff, one of the book’s goals is to guide men to live faith-filled, virtuous lives,” notes the court’s decision.
But after activists in Atlanta’s “gay” community complained to the city about a brief mention of homosexuality in Cochran’s book, Mayor Muhammad Kasim Reed suspended Cochran for 30 days without pay and announced he would have to complete “sensitivity training.”
Reed then fired him, even though a city investigation concluded Cochran did not discriminate against anyone. Public statements Reed and a homosexual councilman made earlier seemed to support Cochran’s claim he was fired for his Christian point of view.
“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 citizens,” Reed said in November 2014 to explain why he suspended Cochran.
That same month, Wan, an openly homosexual council member, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, but when you’re a city employee and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”
Nevertheless, the court rejected Cochran’s claim the firing was motivated by viewpoint or religion.
The court relied heavily on Pickering v. Board of Education, a 1968 Supreme Court ruling that provides guidelines for balancing “between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the [City], as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees” when a claim of retaliation is asserted.
In considering Pickering’s guidelines on balancing competing interests, the court noted that Cochran had included his position with the Atlanta Fire Department in his book, he had shared copies – some unsolicited – with subordinates and had publicized his suspension, which resulted in public petition drive for his reinstatement and thousands of negative messages sent to Mayor Reed.
Given Cochran’s high position – particularly with firefighters who must depend upon one another – the city argued his book “eroded trust” and could be cited as evidence by an employee who sued the city claiming discrimination or individuals contending the department failed to respond to their emergency because of their sexual orientation. Despite evidence any of those things had ever occurred or were even likely to occur, the possibility, the court ruled, made it reasonable to dismiss Cochran.
Reed’s office applauded the ruling, saying the judge ruled “in the city’s favor on all major constitutional issues.”
“We are pleased that Judge Leigh Martin May ruled today that Mayor Reed acted lawfully and appropriately in terminating Mr. Cochran’s employment,” said Jenna Garland, spokeswoman for Mayor Reed. “This lawsuit was never about religious beliefs or the First Amendment. Rather, it is an employment matter involving an executive in charge of more than 1,100 firefighters and tasked to lead by example.”
It is unknown if Cochran will appeal. Both parties have been directed by the court to file briefs on any issues they believe are unresolved.