Federal court upholds Atlanta’s firing of anti-LGBT fire chief

A federal judge sided with Mayor Kasim Reed's decision to fire former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran over a self-published religious book that attacked LGBT people and called for celebrating their deaths.

But the decision issued Wednesday was not a complete victory for Reed. While U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May agreed with the city that Cochran's firing did not violate his Constitutional rights to free speech, free exercise of religion and due process, May did rule that the city's policies requiring pre-clearance for outside employment were unconstitutional.

The 50-page ruling left attorneys for Cochran and Reed claiming victory.

“We are pleased that Judge Leigh Martin May ruled today that Mayor Reed acted lawfully and appropriately in terminating Mr. Cochran’s employment," City Attorney Jeremy Berry said in a prepared statement.

"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," he added.

But the anti-LGBT legal group Alliance for Defending Freedom, which represented Cochran, celebrated the ruling as "Christmas comes early."

“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech,” Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for ADF, said in a prepared statement.

“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," Theriot said.

Reed fired Cochran on Jan. 6, 2015 over his self-published book "Who Told You That You Were Naked" that includes anti-gay statements after an internal investigation showed that the fire chief violated city policies. Cochran embraced anti-gay supporters after his firing, played victim, complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that he was canned for "my deeply held religious convictions" and then sued the city, which called him a liar. 

The LGBT legal group Lambda Legal weighed in to support the firing and to call Cochran a misogynist for other statements in the book.

Cochran claimed he was fired for his religious speech condemning gays and others, a dismissal that his attorneys argued violated the Constitution. Reed and the city argued that Cochran was canned for violating the city's pre-clearance rules for outside employment and for organizing a public relations campaign against him and the city.

Cochran, an evangelical Christian and church deacon, was appointed fire chief in 2008 and left in 2009, only to return the job later. He served as chief until Reed fired him in 2015.

In the book, Cochran lumps homosexuality with pederasty, bestiality and "all other forms for sexual perversion" and claims they are "unclean" and "whatever is the opposite of purity." In the book, Cochran also said the death of LGBT people and those who take part in extramarital sex should be celebrated.

In the court decision, May faulted Cochran for distributing the book to co-workers and exposing the city to claims of fostering a hostile work environment and discrimination. The city's internal investigation did not find that Cochran discriminated against LGBT or female employees.

The court also agreed with the city's contention that the book and its anti-LGBT views – and Cochran identifying himself as fire chief – could lead to "public erosion of trust in the fire department."

"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 wrote in the decision.

The court sided with the city in ruling that Cochran's firing did not violate his First Amendment rights. Cochran also claimed that his firing was retaliation by the city for associating with his church, which the court denied. Cochran also claimed that he was fired over the content of the book, but the court disagreed and said he was not fired for viewpoint discrimination.

But the court did side with Cochran over his challenges to the city's pre-clearance policies and described them as murky and "not properly tailored." The court called the policies unconstitutional.

"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. 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," May wrote.

But the court decision did stress that the city's pre-clearance rules were not put in place over religious motivations and denied Cochran's claims that they interfered with his free exercise of religion.

May gave both sides in the case 30 days to respond and address any outstanding issues. The city said it's prepared to fight for the pre-clearance rules.

"With respect to the single question remaining – whether the City’s conflict of interest and outside employment pre-clearance ordinances are appropriate – the City looks forward to demonstrating the need and propriety of these ordinances at trial," Berry said.