Politics & Policy

How the Atlanta Fire Chief’s Christian Views Cost Him His Job

Former fire chief Kelvin Cochran in 2012 (John E. Davidson/Getty)
From the February 29, 2016, issue of NR

Heretics will be punished. That’s the clear message of the zealots who are defying more than 200 years of American constitutional tradition in their effort to establish a new state church, the church of sexual freedom. To the adherents of this church, no amount of virtue can compensate for apostasy. Even the best and brightest must be swept aside if they do not believe.

By now the stories of the victims or intended victims are familiar. Brendan Eich’s brilliance couldn’t save him at Mozilla. Thousands of hours of good works can’t save Christian student organizations from being pushed off campus. Even adoption agencies must conform to the new faith, pledging their willingness to place babies with homosexual couples, or close their doors. Indeed, no less an authority than the solicitor general of the United States weighed in on whether Christian colleges should be able to keep their tax-exempt status as charitable organizations — it is “going to be an issue,” he predicted.

The stories are legion, and the facts of the individual injustice can get lost as one lists outrage after outrage, so it is worth taking a close look at one story — a story that shows precisely how the new intolerance works and demonstrates unequivocally that no amount of virtue can overcome heresy on questions of sexual morality. It is the story of former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran.

In any other circumstance, Cochran would be the subject of inspirational books and movies — a firefighter’s version of Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands. Cochran, an African American, was born in Confederate Memorial Hospital in Shreveport, La., on January 23, 1960, when segregation still ruled much of the South. He was the fourth of four boys, and his mother had six children in all. Born into deep poverty, he saw his family’s situation grow desperate when his alcoholic father left home, never to return. His mother raised the Cochran kids by herself.

In any other circumstance, Cochran would be the subject of inspirational books and movies.

Their poverty was so deep that they often ran out of food and were reduced to eating mayonnaise sandwiches. When they wanted something sweet, they made “sugar water,” spooning sugar into tap water. Speaking of this time, Cochran says, “I learned how awful poverty really was.” He says he also learned that it was “awful” not to have a father at home.

In spite of his poverty, his single-parent family, and the continuing reality of segregation, Cochran was raised in a community that was both faithful and patriotic. He grew up going to church, and the adults in his congregation gave him a clear message: His “dreams could come true” if he had faith in God, got a good education, respected his elders, and treated others the way they liked to be treated.

At an early age, Cochran knew he wanted to be a firefighter, from the moment he saw a “big red Shreveport fire truck” pull up outside his shotgun house to put out a neighbor’s fire. He was in awe of the truck and the firefighters and was filled with a sense of possibility and purpose.

Interestingly, although the Shreveport Fire Department was all white, not a single adult told him that he couldn’t fulfill his dream. Instead, they repeated their mantra: faith, education, respect, and the Golden Rule.

Cochran took their lessons to heart. He graduated from Shreveport’s Woodlawn High School in 1978, and, after a short stint at Louisiana Tech, he applied to the fire department. In 1981, he was hired — only the “eighth or ninth” black firefighter in Shreveport.

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The Shreveport Fire Department was beginning to integrate, but it had not yet embraced tolerance and equality. In discussing those early years, Cochran looks pained. He makes it clear that he “wasn’t a victim,” but he faced what he simply calls “challenges.” He says that even then, however, his greatest fear wasn’t discrimination or an “overwhelming fire” but rather that he wouldn’t be able to do his job, to do all that his captain asked him to do.

So he studied, and he studied. Then he studied even more. Because he knew the job so well, he became a training officer early. He was a captain in the training academy after only four years (it usually takes twelve). In ten years, he was an assistant chief (it usually takes more than 20 years). After only 18 years, he became the first black fire chief of the Shreveport Fire Department.

Cochran led the department with what he called a “staunch determination to make sure that no member under his watch” would face the discrimination he had faced. He says that he wanted to create an administration of “justice and equity and compassion.”

After only 18 years, he became the first black fire chief of the Shreveport Fire Department.

As chief at Shreveport, Cochran saw his career take off in earnest. He was elected second vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, then first vice president. He became president of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association. Eight years after he became chief in Shreveport, Mayor Shirley Franklin recruited him to become Atlanta’s fire chief. In 2009, Barack Obama appointed him U.S. fire administrator, to run the Fire Administration — a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Atlanta Fire Department suffered, however, with budget cuts leading to a shrunken, demoralized force. Mayor Kasim Reed, Shirley Franklin’s successor in Atlanta, recruited Cochran to return, and Cochran moved back — eager, he says, to take on the challenge.

The challenge, as he described it, was represented by “-isms” — racism, sexism, nepotism, territorialism — all the factors that made the workplace contentious. He responded by creating what he called a “participatory management structure.” When he made key decisions, he solicited input from “every rank, race, shift, and gender.” He consciously included LGBT firefighters. “I gave every group a voice,” he says.

Cochran developed the Atlanta fire-rescue doctrine and worked with Mayor Reed to hire more firefighters and reopen closed stations. He got results. Atlanta — for the first time — became a “Class 1” city, the highest fire-protection rating, given to only 60 cities in the United States out of 49,010 reviewed. Firefighter and civilian deaths and injuries decreased on his watch. He accomplished these results all while focusing on “justice, equity, and compassion.” No employee ever accused him of discrimination.

To this point, Kelvin Cochran’s story is one that would make a university diversity officer rejoice. Born poor and black, he rose above poverty and discrimination to become not only a professional leader but also one who dedicated himself to combating the discrimination that had wounded him early in life. He was professional. He was inclusive. He was compassionate.

Unfortunately for Cochran, however, he was also Christian — and that brings us to the rest of the story.       

Everyone knew about his faith, which meant that people sometimes shared their own faith with him. But he’d never “go there” with colleagues, he says, unless they spoke first.

On occasion, Cochran led Bible studies in his spare time, and in 2012 he led a discussion and study group called “Quest for Authentic Manhood.” As part of that effort, he prayed about God’s purpose for men. As he studied, God’s query to Adam after the Fall — “Who told you that you were naked?” — kept “repeating in [his] head.”

“Naked” was a metaphor for “condemned and deprived,” he concluded. To be clothed means to be “redeemed and restored.” By accepting Christ, men are “clothed” in the righteousness of God.

Cochran soon began working on a book that explored these themes, writing it early in the morning and in his spare weekend time. When he started writing, he asked Nina Hickson, the City of Atlanta’s ethics officer, whether there were any ethical or regulatory problems with a city employee’s writing a “non-work-related, faith-based book.” He claims that Hickson told him that so long as the subject matter of the book did not deal with the “city government or fire department,” he was cleared to write it.

Cochran self-published his work in late 2013. Directed at Christian men, it’s 162 pages, only six of which deal with sex and sexuality — taking the completely conventional, orthodox Christian position that sex outside of male–female marriage is contrary to God’s will. This is the position of the Catholic Church and every orthodox Protestant denomination in the United States.

For almost a year, Cochran handed out the book to a few individuals with whom he worked, mainly people who had already discussed their Christian faith with him. He also shared it with the mayor and three members of the Atlanta city council. At no point did any fire-department employee complain to him about the book.

One employee, however, showed a few pages — the pages dealing with sex and sexuality — to an openly gay Atlanta City Council member, Alex Wan. Wan allegedly then showed those pages to Atlanta’s human-resources commissioner, Yvonne Yancey.

The idea that an Atlanta fire chief could possibly hold to — and express — orthodox Christian beliefs kicked up a firestorm.

The idea that an Atlanta fire chief could possibly hold to — and express — orthodox Christian beliefs kicked up a firestorm. After a flurry of meetings, Atlanta police chief George Turner called Cochran and informed him of the controversy. Four days later, Cochran was suspended without pay. His suspension letter failed to outline the charges against him and also failed to detail a single act in violation of the 21 provisions of the city’s Code of Ordinances that constitute a “cause of action” for termination.

While the city’s formal communications to Cochran were vague, Mayor Reed’s comments were precise. He was furious at the content of Cochran’s book. He said, “I profoundly disagree with and am deeply disturbed by the sentiments expressed in the paperback regarding the LGBT community.” The mayor expressed his disgust at length, stating, “I want to be clear that the material in Chief Cochran’s book is not representative of my personal beliefs, and is inconsistent with the administration’s work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all of her citizens — regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race, and religious beliefs.”

On Facebook, Reed kept up his denunciation, writing, “The contents of the book do not reflect the views of Mayor Reed or the Administration.” He also said he would require Cochran to complete “sensitivity training.” Making it clear that Atlanta respects only one point of view (“the city’s”), Councilmember Wan declared, “I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, but when you’re a city employee, and those thoughts, beliefs, and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”

On January 6, 2015, the City of Atlanta fired Cochran — without providing him the proper process prescribed by city codes and, he claims, without providing him an opportunity to respond to either his suspension or his termination. At no point did any employee of the fire department complain of mistreatment or discrimination.

Atlanta is now claiming that Cochran’s termination had nothing to do with the contents of his book — the mayor’s statements notwithstanding. No, the man who led the fire department to its first-ever Class 1 rating, and who had in the process saved lives of firefighters and civilians, had to be immediately terminated because he didn’t receive “prior written approval” from the board of ethics before self-publishing his book. The city cited a provision of the Atlanta Code of Ordinances regulating outside “private employment” or “services for private interests.”

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But this provision does not apply to publishing a book on religious themes. And if it were applied to Cochran’s book, it would constitute an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech: The city may not require its employees to obtain written consent before expressing their religious beliefs.

Cochran’s story is a warning to those Christians who mistakenly believe that virtue and good works can insulate them from the wrath of the sexual revolutionaries

The New York Times has applauded Atlanta’s actions, writing that he should be held to “a different standard.” But which standard is that? One that holds that a man who has fought discrimination his entire life may be fired merely for expressing orthodox Christian beliefs? The Times claims that LGBT employees should “fear” discrimination. But should they fear the man who included them in his “participatory management structure,” consulting LGBT colleagues before making significant departmental decisions?

The “fear” that now exists is felt by Christians in the department — men and women who believe, Cochran says, that they might be next in line for termination. The City of Atlanta has apparently made its own determination on sexual morality, and city employees now must either express the city’s viewpoint or remain silent. The state church has been established, and the state church has spoken. Endorse sexual liberty, or shut your mouth. The only other option is the unemployment line.

There is hope for Cochran, however. So far, even an Obama-appointed federal judge has been unimpressed with Atlanta’s legal arguments and has turned back the city’s attempt to dismiss Cochran’s lawsuit challenging his termination. His attorneys, my old colleagues at the Alliance Defending Freedom, are beginning the discovery process, and more details will doubtless emerge.

For now, however, Cochran’s story is a warning to those Christians who mistakenly believe that virtue and good works can insulate them from the wrath of the sexual revolutionaries. The double standards are clear — cities prohibited by law from discriminating against Christians now feel free to demand silence from Christian employees while openly advocating the sexual liberation of the LGBT community. In Atlanta, pluralism means conformity, and only one side of the religious and cultural debate truly enjoys the protection of the First Amendment.

The lesson here is clear. If you believe you are safe from the new thought police, you are wrong. Cochran fought discrimination his entire life. Cochran was an Obama appointee in the Department of Homeland Security. Cochran made a concerted effort to include his LGBT employees. Cochran was fired.

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And that brings us to the final, sad irony. Cochran began his career fighting discrimination on the basis of his race. His faith gave him the fortitude to withstand the racist onslaught. And now that same faith has cost him the career that he loved. The Left that boasts about fighting Jim Crow is now attempting to replicate its systemic exclusion and repression. White supremacy is fading away, but a state-endorsed sexual revolution creates new categories of second-class citizens.

Chief Cochran’s life is a story of enduring first one form of discrimination, then another. The faith that sustained him is now the faith that has condemned him, at least in the eyes of the world. The faith that empowered Cochran’s career has also ended it. He is a heretic, after all, and heretics deserve their punishment.

— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review. This article originally appeared in the February 29, 2016, issue of National Review.

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