Former Atlanta Fire Chief Granted Settlement

Kelvin Cochran was awarded a $1.2 million settlement as a result of his being fired as Chief of the Atlanta Fire Department by then-Mayor Kasim Reed. The settlement was approved by the Atlanta City Council.

Cochran’s lawsuit claimed that he was wrongfully terminated by Mayor Reed for having written a book that expressed his understanding of biblical teaching on sexuality. The book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked,” which Cochran says mainly addresses the need for husbands and fathers to step up in their role as leaders in their families, does condemn homosexuality as a “perversion” of God’s will for sexuality and, apparently, even compares homosexuality with bestiality. Cochran said that he had every right to publish his book, and that his firing was a violation both of his freedom of speech and his his due process rights. Supporters of Cochran, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented him, said the case represented an attack on religious freedom, as well.

For his part, Reed said that Cochran was not fired for his religious beliefs, but for failing to obtain permission from the city to write and publish the book. As a city employee, Cochran was obliged to obtain permission from the city ethics officer and the board of ethics before publishing the book in order to protect against possible conflict of interest, even though the book was completely unrelated to his job as Fire Chief. Cochran was also cited for supposedly promoting the book to employees of the fire department (he had handed out copies of the book to some members of the fire department). Finally, concern was raised that the fire department could be at risk for discrimination lawsuits based on Cochran’s publicly-stated position on homosexuality.

However, Judge Leigh May of the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled that the policy requiring that Cochran obtain prior permission represented a constraint on free speech and, as such, was unconstitutional, because the policy did not define by what standards and employee of the city might be determined to have a conflict of interest. As well, an investigation of Cochran’s tenure as Atlanta Fire Chief revealed no incidents of discrimination against anyone.

This is important for a couple of reasons. First, it establishes that employees of a city, or of any employer, do not sacrifice their personal identities or values by becoming an employee. It is not for an employer to determine what values an employee may adopt or in what activities an employee may engage outside the workplace simply because they are an employee. Even in an effort to avoid conflicts of interest, it’s dangerous turf when employers try to limit their employee’s activities. Standards must be well-defined before-hand in order to protect the legitimate rights of employees. People don’t become employees first and individuals with rights second simply because somebody hires them, though I know that many employers would like it to be that way and treat their employees that way because they know most of them don’t have the resources to fight for their rights.

Second, it’s wrong to fire someone because some others think that person’s values or activities might lead to discrimination on their part. It is only right to fire someone if they have actually discriminated against someone. You ought not punish someone for a crime you’re concerned they may commit, but only for crimes they have actually committed. It is entirely possible for someone to believe that an employee’s or a fellow co-worker’s activities or lifestyle is immoral or inappropriate, but still treat them fairly and respectfully on the basis of their activities on the job. Indeed, I suspect that many, if not most, of us have been in a position to do just that.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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