Another big religious freedom case in federal court. And in this case, there’s a ray of hope.
For more than three decades, Kelvin Cochran built a record of service and expertise that made him one of the most respected Fire Chiefs in the country. He was the first African-American Fire Chief in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was among the responders to Hurricane Katrina. President Obama appointed him as the U.S. Fire Administrator, whose job is to improve both fire prevention and response across the country.
And until a few years ago, he was the Chief of the Atlanta Fire Department, a job he would probably still hold if city officials had any respect for Cochran’s rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
Cochran got into trouble over a book he wrote on his own time for a small group that he led in his church. The book entitled “Who Told You That You Were Naked?,” was directed at Christian men seeking to fulfill their biblical roles as “husbands, fathers, community and business leaders.”
Six of the book’s 162 pages—yes, that’s 3.7 percent—addressed a biblical perspective on sexuality. As David French summed up, Cochran took “the completely conventional, orthodox Christian position that sex outside of male–female marriage is contrary to God’s will,” which “is the position of the Catholic Church and every orthodox Protestant denomination in the United States.”
Unfortunately, “orthodoxy” is defined very differently at Atlanta’s City Hall. When the contents of Cochran’s book came to the attention of Mayor Kasim Reed, Reed ultimately fired Cochran, but not before saying “when you’re a city employee, and [your] thoughts, beliefs, and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”
That makes it sound like Cochran was fired for his beliefs; but the city denied that. Instead it claimed that he was let go because he didn’t obtain permission before publishing the book.
The problem is that, constitutionally-speaking, the city cannot require employees to get permission before expressing their religious views.
Late last month, a federal court agreed. It concluded that the Atlanta pre-clearance policy “does not pass constitutional muster” because it does not “set out objective standards for the supervisor to employ.”
As a result, the opinion continues, it “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’s 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 … The potential for stifled speech far outweighs an unsupported assertion of harm.”
Unfortunately for Cochran, that glass is only half-full. The court rejected Cochran’s claim that his rights to free speech and freedom of religion were violated by his firing.
Still, as Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Kevin Theriot emphasizes, the court ruled that Cochran’s firing was unconstitutional. According to Theriot, who represented Cochran, the ruling “sets a precedent that says that government employers have to be very careful about how they restrict the speech of their employees when they’re talking about non-work related stuff.”
This is a real concern. Rules like Atlanta’s have had a chilling effect on the free speech of people on platforms such as social media. People have legitimately feared the consequences of speaking up for traditional Christian beliefs even on their own time. This ruling is an important step in the direction of eliminating that chill.
Where does that leave Cochran himself? Despite media reports to the contrary, he’s in a position to recover his lost wages and benefits. There’s even a remote possibility he could get his job back.
In a just and sane world Kelvin Cochran would not have had to endure what he has endured. But I’m grateful for his courage and I pray that he’ll receive some compensation for the wrong done to him.
John Stonestreet is President of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and BreakPoint co-host.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.