Attorneys for Christian Fire Chief Say Termination Violates First Amendment Rights: 'Tolerance Is a Two-Way Street'

Faith leaders united January, 13, 2015, for a public rally at the Georgia State Capitol in a show of support for ousted Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran who was fired on Jan. 6 for espousing his Christian beliefs in a self-published book and distributing copies in the workplace.
Faith leaders united January, 13, 2015, for a public rally at the Georgia State Capitol in a show of support for ousted Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran who was fired on Jan. 6 for espousing his Christian beliefs in a self-published book and distributing copies in the workplace. | (Photo: Facebook/Mike R. Griffin, Public Affairs Rep. with the Georgia Baptist Convention)

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's decision to terminate Kelvin Cochran last week was unconstitutional, according to attorneys working with the ousted fire chief as he explores legal options to sue the City.

In a recent press release, Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot sternly criticized Reed's controversial firing of Cochran on Jan. 6, one month after he was suspended without pay and forced to undergo sensitivity training for espousing his Christian beliefs in a book and handing out copies to employees.

The case has sparked nationwide debates about free speech and religious freedom and whether Cochran's First Amendment rights were violated.

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"Tolerance is a two-way street," said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. "That's what a federal appeals court said not long ago about public officials who claim to love diversity while only tolerating views they themselves favor. Chief Cochran served the city of Atlanta with distinction, both before and after his post with the Obama administration. The city fired him for nothing other than his faith, and that's not constitutional. We are currently assessing the legal options available to vindicate his rights to free speech and freedom of religion."

In his 2013 book, Who Told You That You Are Naked?, Cochran calls homosexuality "sexual perversion" and "vulgar" and also likens it to "bestiality" among other things. He faced disciplinary action late last year after an AFRD member complained that he had shared the book with employees.

Reed insisted that Cochran was not fired for his religious beliefs but rather "because he displayed bad judgment." He added that Cochran did not follow the correct protocol prior to writing the self-published book even though the former fire chief has said otherwise.

The City's ethics code requires a Commissioner to get approval from the board of ethics prior to engaging in private activity for pay.

"I had legal permission to write the book from the city's ethics officer [Nina Hickson]," Cochran recently told The Christian Post in an exclusive interview. "[It] was through a verbal conversation, there was no documentation … she said it was legal and I was authorized to write it and that she wanted a copy when I finish, after I told her what the book was going to be about."

Cochran claimed he was authorized to write the book during a five-minute phone conversation with Hickson.

"I had legal authority to write the book, however; she cannot remember that conversation," he said.

In a statement to CP, Hickson refuted these claims and cited the Atlanta City Code of Ordinances, Section 2-820 (d).

"The Atlanta's Ethics Code establishes the required approval process for City Commissioners who wish to engage in outside activities for pay," Hickson wrote in an email. "Consequently, I did not authorize Chief Cochran to write and publish the book, nor did I have the authority to do so."

A city investigation determined Cochran had not discriminated against LGBT employees but he was fired anyway.

"The truth is that I am a man of deep faith myself, and we are a city of laws. Chief Cochran's book, "Who Told You You Were Naked," was published in violation of the city's Standards of Conduct, which required prior approval from the Board of Ethics," Reed wrote via Facebook on Tuesday.

Cochran argues however that seeking secondary approval is simply not common practice. He may use his alleged verbal authorization from Hickson as part of his claim, should he decide to sue.

"The mayor also says that I should've gotten permission from him which, when you operate as an executive for a city, whenever something is legal or governed by the law - there's not a practice of getting permission from your boss if its within the scope of the law," Cochran explained. "However, he still used that as the basis of my termination."

Cochran, who first served as fire chief in 2008, believes that his dismissal is symbolic of a growing threat on religious freedoms facing Christians and other people of faith, which is just another reason that he is considering a lawsuit.

Since his termination, Cochran has been overwhelmed by an outpouring of public support. On Tuesday, hundreds of religious freedom advocates gathered for the "Standing for our Faith Rally" in the Georgia State Capitol rotunda and they hand-delivered a petition with 50,000 signatures to Reed's office.

Faith Driven Consumers, an advocacy group representing 41 million Christians, has called on the mayor to reinstate Cochran as fire chief and also to apologize for his termination via its extinguish intolerance campaign which has more than 9,500 signatures.

"My spiritual convictions regarding sexuality do not equate to anger, hatred, or malice toward LGBT members," Cochran said previously, also telling CP, "Unless [Christians] come together ... we're not going to actually have the strength politically like members of the LGBT community do."

In 2009, Obama appointed Cochran as the fire administrator for the U.S. Fire Administration. He returned to his job as Atlanta's fire chief the following year.

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