Kelvin Cochran was a highly decorated and well-respected firefighter. He led the fire departments of two major cities, earned the highest position in the nation for a fire official, and went on to be named Fire Chief of the Year.
But despite all this success, Kelvin was abruptly fired—not for anything he did on the job, but for his Christian beliefs he expressed outside of work.
Who is Kelvin Cochran?
Kelvin Cochran spent over 30 years serving communities as a firefighter.
He began dreaming of becoming a firefighter when he was just 5 years old. When he was home one day, a house across the street caught on fire, and as he watched local firefighters arrive to quickly extinguish the blaze, his dream was born.
In 1981, Kelvin became one of the first black Americans to be hired by the local fire department in Shreveport, Louisiana. His hard work and dedication helped him move up the ranks, and he became the department’s chief in 1999.
Nine years later, Kelvin was appointed to the same position at the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. In 2009, he was nominated by then-President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the U.S. Fire Administrator, the highest position in the nation for a fire official.
Kelvin held that position for 10 months, but the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department struggled without his leadership. The new mayor of Atlanta “begged” Kelvin to return, which he did in 2010. He once again led the department with great success and was even named Fire Chief of the Year by Fire Chief magazine in 2012.
But the mayor abruptly turned on Kelvin in 2014 because of his religious beliefs.
Kelvin is a devout Christian, and while he was fire chief in Atlanta, he often served in his church. As he was leading a Bible study for men in 2012, he came across God’s question to Adam in Genesis, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11)
Kelvin began to think more about this question, and he felt led to write a Bible study intended to help men fulfill God’s purpose for their life. He quickly realized that he had enough material to write a book, which he finished and self-published in 2013.
Throughout the entire process, Kelvin made sure he was not violating any city rules by publishing the book. He asked the City of Atlanta Ethics Officer if he was allowed to write a non-work-related book about his faith while serving as a city employee, and she assured him that he could. She also told him that he could state his position as Atlanta’s fire chief in the “About the Author” section.
Kelvin gave copies of the book to the mayor, some Christian colleagues, and some Christian members of the Atlanta City Council. No fire department employees complained about the book for nearly 10 months after Kelvin handed out copies to those who wanted them.
But in November 2014, Kelvin was informed that a fire department employee had brought the book to a city councilmember who identified as gay and had apparently informed him about the book’s Christian teachings on sexual morality. While Kelvin’s book is not about sexual morality, it does address the topic on a few pages and teaches—in accordance with Scripture—that sex is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman.
After the councilmember spoke with the human resources commissioner, Kelvin was informed by the city police chief and another official that a meeting involving several high-ranking city officials and aides to the mayor had already occurred, and that they would recommend that the mayor fire Kelvin.
A few days later, the city suspended Kelvin for 30 days without pay. It sent him a letter informing him of the suspension, but it did not provide any details about why he had been suspended.
The same day, the mayor issued a statement saying he was “surprised and disappointed to learn of this book,” even though he had received a copy of the book 10 months earlier. He also announced that Kelvin would be forced to complete “sensitivity training.” The mayor’s statement confirmed that Kelvin had been suspended because of the religious beliefs he expressed in his book.
When the 30-day suspension ended, the city of Atlanta fired Kelvin. His firing was motivated by the city’s hostility toward his beliefs—a clear violation of the First Amendment. Moreover, the city did not follow the proper protocols for terminating an employee, which further violated the law.
ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on Kelvin’s behalf in February 2015, and just under three years later, a federal district court ruled that the city had violated the Constitution by strictly regulating its employees’ speech outside of work.
The court ruled that Atlanta cannot require its employees to get the city’s permission before they speak about their beliefs. Since the city violated Kelvin’s rights when it fired him for his beliefs, it agreed to pay him $1.2 million in the wake of the court’s ruling.
- November 2014: The city of Atlanta placed Kelvin Cochran on unpaid leave for 30 days from his position as fire chief because of his beliefs.
- January 2015: After the suspension ended, the city fired Kelvin.
- February 2015: ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit against Atlanta on Kelvin’s behalf.
- December 2017: A federal district court ruled that Atlanta’s policies restricting its employees’ free speech violated the Constitution.
- October 2018: Atlanta agreed to pay Kelvin $1.2 million in the wake of the court’s decision.
The bottom line
The government cannot require its employees to ask for permission before exercising their right to speak freely. Free speech is for everyone, and that includes government employees.