Judge says sacking of Atlanta fire chief over Christian devotional was unconstitutional

(YouTube/Alliance Defending Freedom)Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran appears in a screen capture of a video from Alliance Defending Freedom.

A federal judge has ruled that the city of Atlanta had violated the First Amendment when it terminated a fire chief for publishing a devotional book that promoted traditional marriage.

Kelvin Cochran was fired in 2015, just two months after he was suspended for publishing his book titled "Who Told you That You Were Naked," which characterized homosexuality as "unclean," "a sexual perversion", "vulgar" and "inappropriate."

On Wednesday, Judge Leigh Martin May found that the city's policies restricting non-work speech are too broad and allowed city officials to discriminate against with which they disagree.

Both sides in the case Cochran v. City of Atlanta are claiming victory after the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia issued the ruling.

While the judge backed Cochran's claims related to the policy's prior restraint and unbridled discretion being in violation of the First Amendment, she dismissed the former fire chief's claims of religious discrimination.

According to a spokesperson for the mayor's office, the judge ruled "in the city's favor on all major constitutional issues, and specifically rejected Mr. Cochran's claim that the city violated his due process and other First Amendment rights of freedom of association, free speech, and free exercise of religion."

Speaking on American Family Radio on Thursday, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) senior counsel Kevin Theriot clarified that the judge had not upheld Cochran's firing and found that he was unconstitutionally terminated from his job.

"Now, she only ruled for us on two claims and that was the primary one that their policies that say you have to get permission before writing a book like Chief Cochran wrote and the primary reason they said they fired him is unconstitutional," Theriot explained.

"We had several other claims – one of which that they fired him for his free speech views, another one that they fired him for his religious beliefs – and the court ruled against us on those," he added.

Theriot had asserted that the ruling would mean that Cochran would receive his lost wages and lost benefits. He said that the city would have to pay Cochran's attorney's fees and noted that "it's very possible" that it would be required to reinstate him as fire chief.

Christianity Today reported that the arguments in the case were heard last month in Atlanta, and during the hearing, May indicated that a jury trial was likely in the spring on the issues she may not decide in her December ruling.

The city had contended that Cochran was not fired for expressing his views on his book, but rather because he had violated the city's policy in publishing it.

The ADF, however, argued that the comments made by city officials demonstrate the book's viewpoint was the reason for Cochran's dismissal.

Just before Cochran was fired, Atlanta City Council Alex Wan remarked that when city employees have beliefs and opinions that "are different from the city's, you have to check them at the door."

A lawyer for the city contended that Cochran had not obtained permission to use his fire department title for the book and had failed to inform the city about its publication.

Cochran stated that a city official had given a verbal approval for the publication of the book as well as the use of his fire department title.

The ADF further noted that the city had conducted an investigation, but found that the former fire chief had not discriminated anyone based on his religious beliefs.

Cochran, who now serves as a staff member at a Southern Baptist Church, was part of the Resolutions Committee during the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention meeting, in which he presented a resolution affirming Southern Baptists' commitment to biblical sexuality and urging protection for religious exercise.

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