Cochran lawsuit against City of Atlanta to proceed
The Atlanta Division of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed some claims but allowed the suit to go forward on Cochran's primary claims of "retaliation, discrimination based on his viewpoint, and the violation of his constitutionally protected freedom of religion, association, and due process (firing without following proper procedure)," according to the ADF.
Cochran, a deacon at 19,000-member Elizabeth Baptist Church affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, was terminated on Jan. 6 due to his personal statements on the gay lifestyle. He was unable to comment on the court's ruling.
In its lawsuit, the ADF -- a faith-based non-profit -- alleges that the city terminated Cochran "in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech." The lawsuit states, "a public employer may not terminate a public employee in retaliation for speech protected by the First Amendment."
ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, in commenting on the ruling, said this week, "A religious or ideological test cannot be used to fire a public servant, but the city did exactly that, as the evidence and facts of this case clearly demonstrate.
"We look forward to proceeding with this case because of the injustice against Chief Cochran, one of the most accomplished fire chiefs in the nation, but also because the city's actions place every city employee in jeopardy who may hold to a belief that city officials don't like."
ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman added, "Tolerance must apply to people of different viewpoints, not just those who agree with the beliefs the government prefers. Americans don't surrender their constitutionally protected freedoms when they become public servants."
On Dec. 3, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed sharply criticizing his firing of Cochran. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the letter from Commissioner Peter Kirsanow stated, in part, "(I)t is apparent that the city has chosen slender reeds with which to support its dismissal of Chief Cochran. It is remarkable to claim, as the City does, that religious beliefs are not a matter of public concern and therefore are unprotected by the First Amendment."
The newspaper reported that the letter was a non-binding opinion of the commissioner alone.
The Georgia Baptist Convention has come out in strong support of Cochran, launching an online petition in January protesting Reed's action. The petition, bearing signatures from more than 11,000 individuals nationwide and which called for Cochran to be reinstated, was delivered to the mayor's office on Jan. 13.
Christian Index Editor J. Gerald Harris, in a special Jan. 9 editorial three days after the termination, called for the mayor to "repent or resign."
At this year's annual meeting of the state convention in November, Cochran thanked messengers for their support and gave an update on the past year since losing his job and gaining national media attention.
He spoke on Nov. 10 just two weeks shy of the year anniversary of his initial 30-day suspension which led to his termination. During the evening session he spoke of the providence of God in meeting his family's needs.
The Georgia Baptist reported that he has been called to preach, having delivered his first sermon on July 11, and has since gained employment as chief operating officer at his church, "providing a predictable income" for the first time in 12 months. He then thanked Christian supporters, like the state convention, who stood by him during the most difficult time in his life.
"There are Christians nationwide who have watched how you responded to my situation and have risen to support others in similar situations who have faced trying times for their faith," Cochran said.
Messengers gave the soft-spoken former fireman a standing ovation for his unyielding stand on biblical values.
GBC Executive Director J. Robert White, with GBC Public Affairs Committee Representative Mike Griffin standing nearby, awarded two elected officials the Legislator of the Year Award for their contributions on pending religious freedom legislation. It was the first time such an award was given.
Receiving the awards were Sen. Josh McKoon and Rep. Sam Teasley. Cochran was also recognized for his stance for biblical truth, which cost him his job.