Atlanta Mayor, Ousted Fire Chief Await Judge’s Ruling

Atlanta's ex-fire chief Kelvin Cochran, seen here at the microphone, was fired almost three years ago after distributing a self-published, religious book at work.
Credit Lisa Hagen / WABE

The city of Atlanta and its ex-fire chief Kelvin Cochran are now awaiting a federal judge’s ruling on whether his ouster violated his religious rights. Both sides argued in court today for what could be the last time in the nearly three year lawsuit.

Lawyers for the city and Cochran have asked to skip a jury trial and go straight to the judge’s ruling. Cochran was fired almost three years ago after distributing a self-published, religious book at work. In it, he referred to gay people as vile and cursed evil-doers.

The city says the chief’s defensive public relations campaign, which involved a Georgia Baptist Convention call to action as the city was conducting its review of the book, is what got him fired.

“It was not about the religious beliefs. It was about trust. It was about his campaign to have people contact the mayor – things like that, afterwards,” said chief counsel for the city of Atlanta, Robert Godfrey.

Cochran’s lawyer, Kevin Theriot says the city discriminated against his client because of his beliefs.

“I think that’s a big problem here in America and it’s certainly something that should not be countenanced when you’re talking about religious convictions,” said Theriot. About a dozen

The lawsuit has straddled two very different presidential administrations and political atmospheres. Cochran’s contentious book was brought to the city’s attention half a year before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage.

More recently, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has prioritized religious liberty issues. He’s issued robust guidelines for federal employees, delivered a speech to Georgetown law students on the importance of campus free speech and the Department of Justice has weighed in supporting an evangelical Christian student’s lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett College.

In July, Sessions also gave a closed-door speech to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative legal advocacy organization representing both Cochran and the Georgia Gwinnett College student.

District Judge Leigh May said she expected to rule along with a lengthy analysis within the next month, adding that some parts of the case could still end up going before a jury.