ATLANTA — A federal judge has ruled that the policies that led to a Georgia fire chief’s firing are unconstitutional, but also found that the City of Atlanta was justified in regard to its decision to terminate his employment because of the public controversy his initial suspension caused.
Judge Leigh Martin May, appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama, ruled on Wednesday that the City of Atlanta did not discriminate against Chief Kelvin Cochran’s religious beliefs when it fired him following an investigation into a complaint about a book he wrote that mentioned homosexuality on one page.
She rather found that the investigation led to a public uproar from both sides of the issue, and the uproar led to Cochran’s firing because the matter was deemed disruptive to the City.
“The Court … finds that the actual disruption in this matter, and the context in which it arose, support the City’s firing decision. Plaintiff’s book was brought to the City’s attention in late 2014 when LGBT rights, and specifically gay marriage, were hotly debated in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s consideration of Obergefell v. Hodges,” May wrote.
“It is undisputed that Plaintiff accepted support of a social media campaign aimed at reversing his suspension, which led to Mayor Reed receiving thousands of emails, both for and against Plaintiff’s suspension,” she continued. “Mayor Reed also received phone calls to his home in which he was called a racial slur, the Antichrist, and a terrorist. Some calls even included death threats.”
Therefore, because of the public outrage surrounding his suspension, “Plaintiff’s speech caused such an actual and possible disruption that it does not warrant First Amendment protection in the workplace, based upon Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit precedent,” May deduced.
“As a private citizen, [Plaintiff] is perfectly free to preach vigorously and robustly that homosexuality is a sin. But he did not enjoy that same unrestrained freedom while he occupied the important and prestigious office of a [fire chief],” she asserted, quoting from case law. “Plaintiff was also not entitled to exercise his free speech rights in the workplace when there is a ‘[r]easonable possibility of adverse harm.’”
However, May found that Atlanta’s policies requiring prior approval before becoming involved in outside “employment,” including publishing a book, were problematic because they were both underinclusive and overinclusive.
“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.” May wrote. “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.”
“[T]he provision that requires Plaintiff to seek pre-approval from the board of ethics does not define any standards for the board to apply,” she also noted. “… This ultimately could result in inconsistent results and does not provide the board any standards to use in defining what a ‘conflict’ would be, assuming the purpose is the relevant standard.”
As previously reported, Chief Kelvin Cochran was fired in 2014 after being suspended for one month and placed under investigation as to whether he violated city policy or engaged in discrimination by publishing the book “Who Told You That You Were Naked?”
The book, available on Amazon, is centered on God’s question to Adam following his disobedience in the Garden of Eden, and parallels the matter with those who are now “clothed in Christ.” It was compiled as a result of a number of lesson plans that he had prepared over time for men’s Bible study groups.
While “Who Told You That You Were Naked” was published in 2013, it was reportedly not until November 2014 that Atlanta employees complained to Mayor Reed about its content.
“Uncleanness [is] whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, all other forms of sexual perversion,” Cochran wrote. “Naked men refuse to give in, so they pursue sexual fulfillment through multiple partners, with the opposite sex, the same sex and sex outside of marriage and many other vile, vulgar and inappropriate ways which defile their body-temple and dishonor God.”
But it wasn’t Cochran’s writings against sexual perversion that got him into hot water; it was the fact that he included homosexuality among those behaviors that are cited as being “vile,” “vulgar” and “inappropriate.” The text was included on just one page out of the entire 160-plus page book, which does not center on homosexuality.
Following the receipt of a complaint over the quote, Mayor Kasim Reed placed Cochran on a one-month suspension while an investigation went forward. Shortly after he returned to work, Reed decided to terminate the fire chief over the publication.
He alleged at a press conference shortly after the beginning of the new year that his decision had nothing to do with freedom or speech or religion, stating that Cochran was fired because he had not obtained approval from officials to publish the book. Reed also stated that he thought the chief could present legal liabilities for the city.
But Cochran said the he indeed did seek out the ethics officer prior to publishing the book, and not only was he granted permission to proceed, but he was also allowed to include in his biography that he served as the fire chief of Atlanta. He said that he gave a copy of the publication to Reed in January 2014—nearly a year before the controversy erupted—and was told by the mayor that he would read it.
Shortly after his firing, Cochran filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, alleging a violation of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act, and a month later, attorneys for Cochran filed a federal lawsuit against Reed and the City of Atlanta, asserting violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
On Wednesday, both Cochran’s attorneys and the City of Atlanta expressed satisfaction over the areas in which they succeeded.
“We are pleased that Judge Leigh Martin May ruled today that Mayor Reed acted lawfully and appropriately in terminating Mr. Cochran’s employment,” said City attorney Jeremy Berry. “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.”
“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech,” also remarked Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “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.”