Former Atlanta fire chief sues city, mayor

by Scott Barkley/The Christian Index , posted Thursday, February 19, 2015 (3 years ago)

ATLANTA (BP) -- "Americans are guaranteed the freedom to live without fear [of] being fired because of their beliefs and their thoughts," said David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, explaining the lawsuit ADF filed on behalf of dismissed Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.

"... In America a religious test cannot be used to fire a public servant," Cortman said yesterday (Feb. 18) in a press conference moments after the lawsuit was filed at the state capitol.

The federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Atlanta and Mayor Kasim Reed is necessary "in order to protect not only [Cochran's] Constitutional rights, but everyone else's Constitutional rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion," Cortman said.

Dismissed fire chief Kelvin Cochran appeared at a press conference immediately after a civil rights lawsuit was filed on his behalf against the city of Atlanta. Cochran said that during his 34-year career he had a personal mission "to treat everyone in the communities in which I've served and the members of the departments in which I have served with dignity, with respect, and with equity."
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Cochran was suspended in late November and ordered to undergo sensitivity training after a section of the book he self-published, "Who Told You That You Were Naked?", was found offensive for including sections from the Bible that described marriage as being between one man and one woman.

He was later terminated by Reed in early January.

Cortman quoted Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan, a leader of the move to remove Cochran, who told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "when you're a city employee and [your] thoughts, beliefs, and opinions are different from the city's, you have to check them at the door."

Cortman said, "That should be a startling statement to all of us."

Reaching the U.S. Capitol

Cochran's case has now spread beyond Atlanta. On Feb. 10, a letter from several members of the Georgia delegation to Washington called on Reed to reinstate Cochran.

The letter signed by Republican Representatives Barry Loudermilk, Buddy Carter, Lynn Westmoreland, Tom Price, Austin Scott, and Jody Hice describe Reed's actions as "violat[ing] fundamental principles of free speech and religious freedom" and that "... in terminating [Cochran], the City of Atlanta itself engaged in an act of discrimination, and worse, did so on the basis of religious beliefs."

Calling Reed "a man I continue to respect," Cochran told gathered media that during his 34-year career he had a personal mission "to treat everyone in the communities in which I've served and the members of the departments in which I have served with dignity, with respect, and with equity."

Cochran said not only did he value every person he served as a firefighter and fire chief, but "would gladly lay down my life in service to save another life" for anyone regardless of opinion or demographic "because that's what firefighters do."

An investigation into Cochran's leadership over his career found no cases or even accusations of discrimination.

As a child in Shreveport, La., Cochran observed firefighters extinguishing a blaze that had consumed a shack nearby and similar to the one he shared with his mother and siblings. He pursued the career, achieving that goal in 1981 before becoming fire chief in 1999.

Cochran would be named Atlanta fire chief in 2008, holding the position until the following year, when he was appointed U.S. fire administrator by President Obama. An ADF press release stated that in 2014 Mayor Reed said in his State of the City address how in 2010 he "begged" Cochran to return to Atlanta. Cochran did with the city council's unanimous approval to serve as fire chief. In 2012, Fire Chief magazine named him "Fire Chief of the Year."

Cochran is a member of Elizabeth Baptist Church in Atlanta, affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Scott Barkley is production editor of The Christian Index.
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