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District Court rules in favor of Kelvin Cochran free speech case

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Former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran updates GBC messengers at the November 2015 annual meeting on how he has weathered the storm that placed him in the national media spotlight for his biblical stance against the gay lifestyle. JOE WESTBURY/ndex

Kelvin Cochran has been partially vindicated in the likely slow march to a spring trail.

In November 2014 the former Atlanta Fire Chief and member of Elizabeth Baptist Church was terminated for writing a book which supported the Bible’s views on sex, adultery, and a brief mention of homosexuality. The book, which was shared with members of his staff, resulted in his firing on Jan. 5, 2015.

The City’s argument was based on its reasoning that Cochran failed to get permission to write the book on his own time. Cochran, in acknowledging the policy, said he had verbal approval but nothing in writing. And that is where the fight began with Cochran’s accused failure to comply with City policy and then distributing the book among his staff, which he said was completely voluntary. The City maintained it could lead to discrimination against staff who disagreed with this biblical views..

After a lengthy legal process, a federal district court this afternoon ruled in favor of Cochran stating that the City of Atlanta violated his First Amendment freedoms. The outcome of Cochran vs. City of Atlanta states Cochran wrote the 162-page devotional, titled Who Said That You Were Naked?, as a private individual on his own time for the benefit of a men’s Bible study group at his 19,000=member church, which is affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention.

“America has become a part of God’s divine plan from the beginning of time," said former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran in this file photo. Since being fired amid controversy regarding comments over sexuality in a self-published book, Cochran has become an outspoken proponent of religious liberty. BRYAN NOWAK/Special[/caption]

The partial ruling is a victory not only for Cochran, but for Georgia Baptists who supported the former city administrator and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Cochran. In December 2015 the Atlanta Division of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia allowed the suit to go forward on Cochran’s primary claims of “retaliation, discrimination based on his viewpoint, and the violation of his constitutionally protected freedom of religion, association, and due process (firing without following proper procedure).

This afternoon the ADF praised the ruling which said Cochran’s firing was unconstitutional. In a press release the legal group stated “the court found that the city’s policies restricting non-work speech, like a book for Christian men that Cochran wrote, are too broad and allow city officials to unconstitutionally discriminate against views which they disagree.

“Government can’t force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech”

“The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued before the court on behalf of Cochran last month.

“In addition, as the court found, the city can’t leave such decisions to the whims of government officials. This ruling benefits not only Chief Cochran, but also other employees who want to write books or speak about matters unrelated to work.

“Atlanta can no longer force them to get permission or deny them permission just because certain officials disagree with the views expressed.”

The release further stated that, “with regard to the city’s ‘pre-clearance’ rules, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia wrote in its decision in Cochran v. City of Atlanta, ‘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…. The potential for stifled speech far outweighs an unsupported assertion of harm.”

The court added that provisions within the rules “do not set out objective standards for the supervisor to employ.” “This does not pass constitutional muster,” the court concluded.

Federal Judge Leigh Martin May granted  the summary judgment and told both parties to file pre-trial orders within 30 days to present the issues they believe remain. She indicated a jury trial would be likely in the spring on the issues she did not address in the 50-page opinion.

In quoting the judgement, Baptist Press reported that the city's rules apply "to all outside employment even if it is plainly untethered from the employee's job." May continued, stating "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.

GBC shows strong support

The Georgia Baptist Mission Board came out in strong support of Cochran, launching an online petition in January 2015 immediately after Mayor Kasim Reed fired Cochran on Jan. 6 because he did not choose to resign. Mission Board Lobbyist Mike Griffin, who heads the agency’s Public Affairs Committee, coordinated much of the Board’s support.

Christian Index Editor J. Gerald Harris, in a special Jan. 9 editorial three days after the termination, called for the mayor to “repent or resign.” The petition, bearing signatures from 11,229 individuals nationwide and which called for Cochran to be reinstated, was delivered to the mayor’s office on Jan. 13.

Cochran’s case has garnered national attention. In September 2016 in Washington, DC, the National Religious Broadcasters presented its annual Faith & Freedom Award to Cochran because of his Christian faith and beliefs.

"Kelvin Cochran is one of the most godly men I have ever met. He has been faithful to the Lord through this whole lawsuit. I believe God has chosen to use this situation to bring attention to the importance of speaking the true in love and standing up for religious liberty," Griffin told The Index on Wednesday night.

Georgia Baptist Mission Board Executive Director J. Robert White also expressed his gratitude for the District Court ruling.

"This has been a good day for the freedom of speech and protection of religious expression. Kelvin Cochran earned an outstanding victory in his case against the City of Atlanta. His courageous stand for what is right and just has resulted in a notable precedent for free speech.

"The decision may be best summarized in the following statement by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia: “It is unclear to the court how such an outside employment (writing and selling a book on the employee’s own time, and without prior approval) 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.”

"When I called Chief Cochran this evening to congratulate him, he responded by saying he could not have done it without the support he received from the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. He has certainly had much prayer support from Georgia Baptists and Christians around the world. We rejoice in this significant victory and answer to prayer."

Southern Baptist religious freedom advocate Russell Moore told Baptist Press  the ruling as "good news for every American.”

“This case is about whether or not people of faith can live and work in the public square,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments for Baptist Press. “The government does not have the right to sanction the beliefs of its employees, or punish those whose beliefs the state finds disagreeable. I am glad to see the district court rule on this side of freedom of conscience."

Today Cochran serves as  chief operating officer of Elizabeth Baptist Church, which has multiple worship location in metropolitan Atlanta.

To read the ADF’s press release visit http://www.adfmedia.org/News/PRDetail/9520

To read the court opinion visit  http://www.adfmedia.org/files/CochranDistrictCourtDecision.pdf

Alliance Defending Freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, Kelvin Cochran, religous freedom

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