U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May ruled Wednesday that Atlanta officials violated the Constitution in 2015 when they terminated then-Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran for not getting prior permission from the city to write a religious book.
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) represented Cochran, an evangelical Christian, in the case, Cochran v. City of Atlanta. The judge upheld Cochran’s claims that Atlanta’s policies restricting his free speech outside the workplace “do not set out objective standards for the supervisor to employ” and do not “pass constitutional muster.”
“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech,” Kevin Theriot, ADF senior counsel, said Wednesday. “In addition, as the court found, the city can’t leave such decisions to the whims of government officials.”
Prior to serving in Atlanta, Cochran was the first African-American fire chief appointed in Shreveport, Louisiana. Former President Barack Obama appointed Cochran to serve as U.S. Fire Chief in 2009. In 2010, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed appointed him to serve as chief of the Atlanta Fire Department.
Cochran was suspended in 2014 and later fired after he distributed a Christian book he wrote to employees. The book included portions discussing biblical views on LGBT issues and adultery.
“It is still unthinkable to me that the very faith and patriotism that inspired my professional achievements and drove me to treat all people with love and equity is what the government ultimately used to bring my dream career to an end,” Cochran said in November, according to Christianity Today.
Although the judge sided with Cochran’s free speech concerns and ruled that the city of Atlanta’s broad rules allowed officials to discriminate against various viewpoints, she dismissed his claim that the city of Atlanta committed religious discrimination against him by firing him.
“This lawsuit was never about religious beliefs or the First Amendment,” said Jenna Garland, Reed’s spokeswoman, local outlet 11 Alive reported. “Rather, it is an employment matter involving an executive in charge of more than 1,100 firefighters and tasked to lead by example.”
But ADF praised the judge for her ruling, noting that the 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,” Theriot said.