On October 15, the city council of Atlanta voted to pay $1.2 million to the city’s former fire chief Kelvin Cochran. The settlement comes after a federal court ruled last December in Cochran’s favor in a lawsuit he filed against the city for suspending him in 2014 and firing him early the next year. The city claimed Cochran had violated procedures for pursuing outside work; Cochran was convinced that he had been fired because of views he expressed in a short devotional book aimed at Christian men, Who Told You That You Were Naked? (the question is drawn from the book of Genesis) that grew out of classes he taught at his church—in particular, two sentences that described homosexuality as sinful behavior.
The U.S. District Court for the northern district of Georgia agreed with Cochran, noting, “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. 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,” adding, “This does not pass constitutional muster.”
Cochran’s victory is the latest in a long string of legal battles that have ended badly for opponents of religious liberty. Cochran was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian legal group that racked up two Supreme Court victories earlier this year. For years liberal advocacy groups such as the ACLU have argued, often with some measure of hyperbole or dishonesty, that “religious liberty” is a code word for discrimination. But in recent years, courts are recognizing the arguments of religious-freedom advocates, particularly the claim that you can’t separate an expression of personal religious beliefs from constitutionally protected free speech.
Kelvin Cochran’s life is a compelling American success story. Born to a single mother, he grew up in poverty before becoming a fireman. He rose through the ranks and eventually became fire chief in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana (the first African-American to hold that position), before becoming fire chief of Atlanta in 2008. He left Atlanta in 2009 to become the U.S. fire administrator, the top federal firefighting official, in the Obama administration. Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, a self-styled progressive who later orchestrated Cochran’s firing, said he “begged” Cochran to return to his job as fire chief in Atlanta in 2010, which he did. In 2012, Cochran was named Fire Chief of the Year by Fire Chief Magazine.
Cochran knows a thing or two about bigotry as well: When he was one of the first black men to join the Shreveport department, he was made to sleep in separate quarters from the white firefighters. “It gave me a conviction that should I ever be in a position of leadership, that I would not allow anyone to have the same experience I had as a minority,” Cochran says of the experience.
Since Cochran’s qualifications were not in doubt and the city’s own investigation concluded he had engaged in no discriminatory behavior, the federal court found that the city of Atlanta’s eventual justification for firing Cochran (the existence of “pre-clearance” rules governing the speech of city employees) was unpersuasive.
Cochran’s case isn’t just a win for religious freedom but for free speech generally. Like the Supreme Court’s decision this year in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, which rejected the state of California’s effort to require religiously oriented crisis pregnancy centers to read what Justice Clarence Thomas called a “government drafted script” telling women about abortion, Cochran’s case highlights the importance of protecting the right of employees to express their beliefs on all manner of topics.
But these rights remain at risk. Alarmingly, four justices on the High Court approved of California’s efforts to compel speech. If much of the institutional left in this country believes that Kelvin Cochran can be told to shut up and crisis pregnancy centers can be told what to say, then let’s at least be honest about what’s happening: An influential number of activists want to eliminate the First Amendment as an obstacle to achieving their vision of social equality. Proponents of religious liberty are going to need to keep amassing popular support and racking up significant legal victories to counter them.