ATLANTA, Ga. — The city council of Atlanta, Georgia has voted to pay $1.2 million to a fire chief who was fired nearly four years ago after some took offense at a book he published for men and fathers, which contained a page characterizing homosexual behavior and other forms of sexual activity proscribed by the Bible as being examples of sexual perversion and the “opposite of purity.”
According to reports, city council voted 11-3 on Monday to approve the payment in light of a ruling last December in which a federal judge determined that while Chief Kelvin Cochran‘s firing was not a matter of discrimination, some of the City’s policies requiring prior approval before taking “outside employment,” including publishing a book, were problematic.
“[B]ased upon findings of the court that could have resulted in taxpayers paying millions of dollars in damages and litigation fees, negotiated settlement was recommended by legal counsel,” a spokesperson told Fox5 News.
As previously reported, Cochran was fired in January 2015 after being suspended for one month and placed under investigation as to whether he violated city policy or engaged in discrimination by publishing the devotional “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 Kasim 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 on one page. “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 mention of 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 162-page book does not center on homosexuality, but is stated to cite it briefly in two or three places.
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 VII 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.
In December 2017, Judge Leigh Martin May, appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama, ruled that the City of Atlanta did not discriminate against Chief Kelvin Cochran’s religious beliefs when it fired him because the public uproar that resulted from both sides in response to his suspension was deemed disruptive to the City.
“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 wrote. “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.
She claimed in her decision that Cochran had expressed in his book—as May summarized it—that “the death of all individuals who engage in homosexual and extramarital sex would be celebrated,” and it was therefore “not unreasonable for the City to fear public erosion of trust in the fire department.” However, Cochran stated in court documents that he was not condemning homosexuals in his writings because “all have sinned” and “need a Savior.” He also told reporters that he did not single out homosexuality in the few instances his book referred to sexuality.
Reviews of the book state that Cochran’s publication has been “misrepresented” by the media, as it rather focuses on “the comparison of the sin nature inherited from Adam with the life of the man who is clothed with the righteousness of Christ,” and that it “never states homosexuality is a worse sin than any other.”
While May did not find that Cochran’s firing was discriminatory, she did conclude 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.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented Cochran in court, expressed satisfaction on Tuesday that a settlement had been reached with the City in light of the ruling.
“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before they engage in free speech. It also can’t fire them for exercising that First Amendment freedom, causing them to lose both their freedom and their livelihoods,” said Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “We are very pleased that the city is compensating Chief Cochran as it should, and we hope this will serve as a deterrent to any government that would trample upon the constitutionally protected freedoms of its public servants.”