Atlanta fire chief disciplined Chick-fil-A backers

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Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, fired last week over his anti-gay religious book, once pushed to discipline uniformed firefighters who supported anti-gay statements by the leader of Chick-fil-A.

Steven Borders, president of the Atlanta Professional Firefighters union, pointed to the incident as an example of firefighters being disciplined for making anti-gay or political statements, arguing that Cochran should face the same fate. But the incident also provides an ironic twist to a controversy that's gained national attention. 

Union president Borders was unable to offer any examples of maltreatment. He echoed the sentiment of distrust and disgust created by the contents of the book with the representation in the book that Chief Cochran is speaking in his capacity as AFRD Chief. He cited to an example wherein firefighters were disciplined for expressing support of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy's stance on homosexuality. In that case, during the height of the controversy, a squad of AFRD firefighters took a group picture showing them in uniform at one of Cathy's restaurants. One of the firefighters then posted the picture on Facebook expressing support for Cathy's religious beliefs and his opinion of homosexuality and gay marriage. When a citizen complained, Chief Cochran directed the captain of the squad to initiate an OPS complaint. The complaint was sustained for a work rule violation and the firefighters were given thirty day suspensions. Borders' opinion was that Chief Cochran should be held to the same standard. 

The incident is outlined in a five-page report from the city's law department, which investigated Cochran and his book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked.” The city released the report on Friday, three days after Mayor Kasim Reed fired him. Borders and the firefighters union supported Cochran's termination.

In 2012, Cathy – then Chick-fil-A's president – backed his “traditional family” view of marriage that doesn't include same-sex couples and chided “arrogant” activists would say otherwise. Cathy later said that he's ashamed of the Supreme Court for dumping the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex marriages. The company also has a long record of supporting anti-gay organizations through donations from its foundations.

In his book, Cochran goes further than Cathy, calling homosexuality “the opposite of clean,” comparing it to bestiality and sexual perversion, and saying it dishonors God.

The city's law department launched an investigation into Cochran and the book in November to determine if Cochran was given authorization to publish it, whether it was distributed in the workplace and if Cochran allowed his anti-gay beliefs to influence his disciplinary decisions in the 750-person fire department. Reed suspended Cochran for 30 days and publicly rebuked him when the book became public.

The report concluded that Cochran did not receive authorization to publish the book, which is required by city policy. It also determined that Cochran gave at least nine copies of the book to members of the fire department's command staff and at least three of those employees said it was provided to them without their request. That contradicts statements Cochran has made in public. 

The city's report concluded there was no indication Cochran's conservative religious beliefs impacted his disciplinary decisions in the department. But it also showed that Cochran had little room to impact disciplinary processes at the agency.

There is currently no indication that Chief Cochran allowed his religious beliefs to compromise his disciplinary decisions. While the fire chief has final authority over disciplinary decisions, the initiation of discipline occurs at lower management ranks for investigation by the Office of Professional Standards. Final recommendations on the level of discipline are made by a Disciplinary Review Panel consisting of chief officers that convenes to review cases sustained by OPS. This Panel then vets each case individually and recommends a level of discipline based on a preset grid that ensures consistency. The recommendation from the Panel must fall within the range set within the grid. Once the Panel forwards its recommendation to the fire chief, he then makes a decision to accept the recommendation, to reduce or to increase within the range or to refer back to the Panel for further review.

The report also noted that witnesses interviewed for the investigation could not point to an instance of Cochran treating employees unfairly based on his religious beliefs. But the witnesses were “appalled” by portions of Cochran's book.

There was a consistent sentiment among the witnesses that firefighters throughout the organization are appalled by the sentiments expressed in the book. There also is general agreement the contents of the book have eroded trust and have compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.


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