The City of Atlanta agreed this week to pay former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit brought against city leaders who fired Cochran in 2015 for expressing his Christian beliefs on homosexuality and gay marriage.
“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before they engage in free speech,” said Kevin Theriot of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Cochran in his lawsuit. “It also can’t fire them for exercising that First Amendment freedom, causing them to lose both their freedom and their livelihoods.”
Cochran was fired by then-Mayor Kasim Reed after publishing a Biblical devotional about marriage and family. In the book, Cochran was forthright about his views on same-sex marriage and homosexuality, at one point comparing it to the sin of bestiality. Reed justified his termination by saying he’d lost the confidence of the city and could no longer serve as an effective leader given the diverse makeup of the Atlanta Fire Department.
Reed also said that the city had established rules requiring that city officials get permission from the ethics office before publishing anything.
In December, U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May rejected those rules as unconstitutional.
“This policy would prevent an employee from writing and selling a book on golf or badminton on his own time and, without prior approval, would subject him to firing,” May ruled. “It is unclear to the Court how such an outside employment would ever affect the City’s ability to function, and the City provides no evidence to justify it.”
Reed has since been replaced by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, but her office was no less certain of the city’s justification in firing Cochran. In a statement released after the settlement, a spokesperson for Bottoms said that the decision was purely financial and contained no admission of wrongdoing.
“The comments of Kelvin Cochran were not reflective of who Atlanta is as a tolerant and inclusive city,” said the spokesperson. “While the start of this litigation preceded our Administration, based upon findings of the Court that could have resulted in tax payers paying millions of dollars in damages and litigation fees, a negotiated settlement was recommended by legal counsel.”
Nevertheless, Cochran’s attorneys see this as a huge win for freedom and the viability of the Constitution.
“We believe that the settlement sends a strong message throughout Atlanta and the rest of the country that the government cannot require its permission in advance for someone to speak about their faith on their own time,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “The First Amendment provides the only permission necessary.”