Fire chief sues city of Atlanta over unjust termination
“Americans are guaranteed the freedom to live without fear of being fired because of their beliefs and thoughts,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “The city of Atlanta is not above the Constitution and federal law. In America, a religious or ideological test cannot be used to fire a public servant.”
The city has publicly admitted that it fired the well-respected fire chief for his beliefs – an act that is illegal.
“I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, but when you’re a city employee and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door,” said City Councilman Alex Wan, a leader in the campaign to oust Cochran, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November.
Mayor Kasim Reed first suspended Cochran for 30 days and announced that he would have to complete “sensitivity training” after activists who don’t agree with the fire chief’s Christian views on sex complained about a men’s devotional book Cochran had written on his personal time. Biblical sexual morality is mentioned only briefly in the 162-page book.
After an investigation that included interviews with employees found Cochran did not discriminate against anyone, the mayor fired him anyway – citing as his basis, ironically, the need to tolerate diverse views.
“I want to be clear that the material in Chief Cochran’s book is not representative of my personal beliefs and is inconsistent with the administration’s work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all citizens…,” Reed told USA Today last month.
In a Feb. 10 letter, Georgia’s congressional delegation called upon Reed to reinstate Cochran. The letter notes that the city’s action “appears to violate fundamental principles of free speech and religious freedom…. The only way Chief Cochran could avoid his views would be to disown his religion. Indeed, in terminating him, the City of Atlanta itself engaged in an act of discrimination, and worse, did so on the basis of his religious beliefs.”
“To actually lose my childhood-dream-come-true profession – where all of my expectations have been greatly exceeded – because of my faith is staggering,” said Cochran. “The very faith that led me to pursue my career has been used to take it from me. “All Americans are guaranteed the freedom to hold to their beliefs without the consequences that I have experienced.”
The seed that planted Cochran’s dream career was his observation of firefighters putting out a blaze that burned up a shack near the one that he, his siblings, and his single mother called home in an alley of Shreveport, Louisiana, when he was five years old. Learning from faith-based principles taught to him by mentors to believe in God, go to school, respect his elders, and treat others as he wants to be treated, he finally became a Shreveport firefighter in 1981 and eventually fire chief in 1999.
Cochran was named Atlanta’s fire chief in 2008. He served there until 2009, when President Obama appointed him U.S. fire administrator. In Reed’s 2014 State of the City Address, the mayor recounted that he “begged” Cochran to return to Atlanta in 2010. Cochran agreed, and the city council unanimously confirmed him to serve once again as the city’s fire chief. In 2012, Fire Chief magazine named Cochran “Fire Chief of the Year.”
“Every American should be concerned about a government that thinks it can fire you because of what you believe,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “If it can happen to Chief Cochran, a distinguished firefighter who attained the highest fire service position in the United States, it can happen to anybody.”
Jonathan Crumly and Garland Hunt, two of more than 2,500 private attorneys allied with ADF, are serving as local counsel in Cochran v. City of Atlanta, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division.
- Pronunciation guide: Theriot (TARE’-ee-oh)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.