A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has written to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed sharply criticizing his firing of Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.
“(I)t is apparent that the city has chosen slender reeds with which to support its dismissal of Chief Cochran,” wrote Commissioner Peter Kirsanow in a letter to Reed dated Dec. 3. “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.”
Cochran was fired Jan. 6, after serving a month-long suspension related to a book he wrote, “Who Told You That You Are Naked?”, in which he promoted traditional Christian teachings about sexuality, including about homosexuality. The book, which was published in 2013 but didn’t become a public issue until late 2014, included a definition of “uncleanness” as: “whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, and all other forms of sexual perversion.” Cochran also wrote that sex was intended to be “between a man and a woman” and that people in other types of relationships “pursue sexual fulfillment through multiple partners, with the opposite sex, same sex and sex outside of marriage and many other vile, vulgar and inappropriate ways.”
Cochran is a deacon at Elizabeth Baptist Church, and he said the 162-page book — which touches on a variety of topics besides sex — was a compilation of lesson plans he wrote for men’s Bible study groups. He has acknowledged distributing it to some employees at the fire department. Reed suspended him in November 2014 and, in explaining his decision to fire Cochran after the suspension ended, accused the chief of insubordination for not obtaining written permission to publish the book and for speaking in public and to media outlets during his suspension. Cochran is suing the city for wrongful termination.
Kirsanow’s letter, a non-binding opinion of the commissioner alone, makes clear that he, at least, finds Reed’s justification lacking:
“(I)t strains credulity to believe that Chief Cochran was dismissed because he did not obtain written permission to exercise his First Amendment rights and instead relied on the oral permission of a City ethics official. If the lack of written permission were indeed the issue, even assuming such a requirement is compatible with the First Amendment it is a) unlikely that you would have fired a fire chief whom you had previously begged to return to Atlanta, rather than perhaps issuing a written warning; b) you would not have publicly expressed your disagreement with the substance of the book. This is similar to Leonard v. City of Columbus, where black police officers were fired for removing American flag patches from their uniforms to protest alleged racial discrimination by the police department. The City of Columbus attempted to distinguish these officers’ dismissal from previous cases where officers were not disciplined for failing to wear a flag patch ‘on the basis that appellants stood up in front of the media and removed the flag patch, announcing they could not wear it because of injustice on the force. Such testimony only serves to emphasize that appellants were not punished for failing or refusing to wear the flag, they were punished for speaking.’ In this case, your criticism of Chief Cochran’s book makes it abundantly clear that his supposed violation of the ordinance is only a pretext, and that he is being retaliated against because of the content of his speech.”
Kirsanow also rejected the city’s claims that Cochran’s book had sown the seeds for disruption within the fire department:
“The only evidence of disruption the City can muster is that one member of the AFRD (Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department) complained to Councilmember (Alex) Wan about Chief Cochran’s book. No one has alleged that Chief Cochran has discriminated against LGBT firefighters or, for that matter against heterosexual firefighters whose sexual behavior is contrary to Chief Cochran’s orthodox Christian beliefs. No one has alleged that Chief Cochran requires dispatchers to ask if an emergency caller is LGBT before sending assistance. In short, the ‘disruption’ put forth by the City consists of one AFRD member’s disagreement with six pages of a self-published religious devotional book. This interest plainly is insufficient to justify muzzling Chief Cochran.”
The letter’s closing is even more full-throated:
“The City claims the book is ‘controversial’ and contains ‘moral judgments about certain groups of people.’ Apparently the irony eludes, for if making ‘moral judgments about certain groups of people’ is now forbidden, Mayor Reed and Councilmember Wan must be prohibited from expressing their disagreement with the book, as that reflects their moral judgment about people who believe as Chief Cochran does. Furthermore, if knowing that someone holds views with which some people disagree threatens the cohesion of the AFRD, the people of Atlanta may wish to consider hiring some new firefighters. It is hard to imagine that people who wilt upon learning that a book they are under no obligation to read contains statements with which they disagree will have the intestinal fortitude to rush into burning buildings. It seems unlikely that the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department is comprised of such fragile flowers. It is respectfully submitted that this is not a good-faith attempt to maintain morale and cohesion. It is simply a purge of the disfavored at the behest of the politically correct. That is unconstitutional and contrary to American ideals.”
In response, Reed’s office pointed me to a statement issued by city attorney Cathy Hampton before an October hearing in the lawsuit:
“This lawsuit is not about religious beliefs, nor is it about the First Amendment. Rather, it is an employment matter involving an executive in charge of 1,129 firefighters and tasked to lead by example. Instead of leadership, the former executive failed to follow his employer’s rules for outside employment.”
The letter does not reflect the opinion of the full commission. An assistant to Kirsanow likened the letter to one a senator might send to an agency head expressing concerns about a position or action the agency has taken. Cochran’s case is not pending before the commission, which has no role in his federal lawsuit.
To read the full letter, click here.