Atlanta fire chief fights dismissal over religious beliefs

Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran (Photo from facebook.com)
The case of Atlanta’s dismissed fire chief is turning into a national debate over anti-discrimination policies and religious liberty, as he filed a lawsuit on Thursday alleging wrongful termination under the Civil Rights Act.

Americans are guaranteed the freedom to live without fear of being fired because of their beliefs and thoughts,” said Senior Counsel David Cortman of the Alliance to Defend Freedom (ADF) representing Chief Kelvin Cochran. “The city of Atlanta is not above the Constitution and federal law. In America, a religious or ideological test cannot be used to fire a public servant,” added Cortman.

Jenna Garland, spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, countered that the city would contest the charges, “confident that the decision to terminate Mr Cochran was both the right thing to do and fully legal.”

A devoted evangelical Christian, Cochran was suspended in November 2014, following anonymous complaints over a devotional book he self-published a year earlier. After a month-long investigation, the city concluded Cochran had not actually discriminated against anyone – but sacked him anyway.

Atlanta Professional Firefighters Union hailed the decision, issuing a statement in support of “LGBT rights and equality among all employees.” Openly gay councilmember Alex Wan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, while he respected everyone’s right to speech, beliefs and opinions, “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.”

A petition with 50,000 signatures for Cochran’s reinstatement was handed to the mayor a week after the chief’s dismissal, as hundreds gathered in a show of support at the Georgia State Capitol. “If a government will fire someone for their religious beliefs, no beliefs are safe from government regardless of how sacred those beliefs may be,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative group Family Research Council, who was at the rally.

Cochran’s cause was also taken up by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Georgia Baptist Convention, and the Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF is representing Cochran in his anti-discrimination suit. Cochran is asking for compensatory damages, reinstatement to his old job, and the city’s admission it violated his constitutional rights.

Georgia’s congressional delegation also came out in support of Cochran, sending a letter to the city on February 10 noting that the city’s actions appeared to “violate fundamental principles of free speech and religious freedom…. The only way Chief Cochran could avoid his views would be to disown his religion.”