The Corner

Good News for Religious Liberty: Court Refuses to Dismiss Atlanta Fire Chief’s Case

Not all the religious liberty news is bad. My good friends (and former colleagues) at the Alliance Defending Freedom have cleared a key hurdle in their lawsuit on behalf of former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran. Cochran claims he was fired because of his religious beliefs, and Atlanta responded with a motion to dismiss – seeking to toss his case out of court. On Wednesday, the court rejected Atlanta’s motion, allowing his case to go forward on claims of retaliation, viewpoint discrimination, and violations of his rights to expressive association, free exercise of religion, and procedural due process. 

The city summarily terminated Cochran after he wrote a book that articulated his orthodox Christian views on a number of topics, including sex and marriage. According to Cochran, he received verbal consent from the city ethics officer to publish the book and to identify himself as Atlanta’s fire chief in the “About the Author” section. Shortly after publication, he gave copies to a select few employees who had either asked for the book or had previously shared their Christian faith with him. One of the recipients apparently disagreed with Cochran’s views on sexual morality and showed the offending passages to a member of the city council. Hysterics ensued.

Within days, the city suspended Cochran without pay — even though he’d never been accused of sexual orientation discrimination – and then fired him at the end of his suspension period. Throughout the controversy, city officials expressed vigorous disagreement with Cochran’s views, including this statement from Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed:

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 citizens.

While there’s nothing wrong with city officials expressing disapproval of a book’s contents, when they combine that disapproval with an adverse job action, like termination, the constitutional red flags fly high. The court’s ruling is worth reading in its entirety, but it’s particularly sobering for the defendants. As I understand the opinion, Atlanta is going to have difficulty showing that it gave Cochran appropriate due process, and unless it can show that the book interfered with the “discipline and efficiency” of the fire department, it may face a real challenge in overcoming Cochran’s retaliation claim.

Based on the available evidence, it looks like Cochran faced an ideological purge, and so long as the First and Fourteenth Amendments have any vitality, ideological purges tend to fare poorly in federal court.  

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