By Elizabeth Warner
Kelvin Cochran rose from poverty to become one of the first African-American firefighters in his hometown before becoming the fire chief from the entire city of Atlanta. His story is a remarkable one, but in recent years he’s become better known for a legal battle that started with a book about his Christian views that he asked if he could write in his spare time. Not long after he finished it, he was fired for it, which started a courtroom conflict that has raged on.
Now, several years later, his legal battle has finally come to a happier and more hopeful end. And Cochran’s legal victory is much more than just righting the wrongs one man suffered; his victory may play an important role in supporting religious liberty and free speech for all Americans.
Cochran’s American Dream
Cochran’s story was particularly interesting to me because the beginning practically embodies the American dream. Defying the odds, he rose from his low-income background to become the first African-American fire chief in Shreveport, Louisiana. From there he went on to serve as Atlanta’s fire chief, then to head up the US Fire Administration, then back to Atlanta again.
Despite facing discrimination, and even segregation, in his early years as a firefighter, Cochran pushed through to achieve his dreams. And perhaps because of that discrimination, Cochran himself said the experience “gave [him] a conviction that should [he] ever be in a position of leadership, that [he] would not allow anyone to have the same experience [he] had as a minority.”
And yet, while the success of this racial minority should be celebrated, the government punished him for sharing his beliefs instead.
An American Dream Gone Wrong
While serving as the fire chief of Atlanta, Kelvin Cochran wrote a book on his own personal time called Who Told You That You Were Naked? He even asked the city’s ethics officer if it would be appropriate for “a currently serving government official” to “write a non-work-related, faith-based book” (see Cochran v. City of Atlanta), which she then approved. The book reflects Cochran’s Christian beliefs, including a 6 page section about traditional Christian views on sexuality. Cochran shared this book with a few of his colleagues at work, with Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed, and with a few city council members.
Unfortunately, things only went downhill from there. After a fire department employee showed the passage about sexuality to City Council Member Alex Wan, the city councilman met with Mayor Reed about getting Cochran fired. Cochran was suddenly put on a 30 day suspension — without pay. Once the suspension was up his employment with the city of Atlanta was terminated.
Restricting Religious Liberty & Free Speech
Why was Cochran fired, you might ask? That’s up for debate.
The city claimed it had nothing to do with Cochran’s religious views. According to the city, Kelvin Cochran was fired because he did not get written permission to publish his book per city policy. (City law required Cochran or any government employee to have a book pre-approved before publishing.)
And yet, here’s what City Councilman Alex Wan said about the incident: “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.”
It’s pretty clear that if Mayor Reed or City Councilman Alex Wan agreed with Cochran’s views, they wouldn’t have worried much about the book or so-called protocol. Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal explained, “In response to the lawsuit, the city has maintained that Mr. Cochran was terminated for violating protocol, not for his religious views — as if he would have been fired for publishing a cookbook.”
While the Supreme Court has ruled that government employees “must accept certain limitations on [their] freedom” (see Garcetti v. Ceballos), they also made it clear that government employees are still free to comment on matters of public interest just like any other citizen (see Pickering v. Board of Education).
And yet in this case, Kelvin Cochran wasn’t. His free expression as a citizen of the United States was inhibited because other government officials disagreed with his religious beliefs.
Supporting Our Freedoms
Ultimately, a federal court ruled that the city of Atlanta’s actions were unconstitutional. The court opinion states: “The potential for stifled speech far outweighs an unsupported assertion of harm.” Not only did they strike down the policy, but the city of Atlanta also agreed to pay Kelvin Cochran $1.2 million for damages caused.
Striking down the city’s pre-clearance policy is a big win for free speech. And since officials used that law to stifle expression of religion, it’s a big win for religious freedom as well.
As Kevin Theriot of the Alliance Defending Freedom put it, “Government cannot require a permission slip for its employees to write on important matters like faith and values in their off time.” Thankfully, the courts agreed.
With such a great legal victory for Cochran, what does this mean for freedom of speech and religious liberty? While Cochran’s case doesn’t apply exactly to other ongoing religious liberty battles, hopefully that $1.2 million handed over to Cochran acts as a deterrent, protecting both free speech and exercise of religion.
Freedom of Speech
In Cochran’s case, a policy that applies to very specific situations was struck down. This may not impact many people directly, particularly as it was unique to Atlanta. However, the principle behind the decision may have much more far-reaching effects. In this case, the courts restricted the government’s ability to limit free speech, showing that limiting free speech should be the exception rather than the rule.
While the court didn’t acknowledge a direct violation of Cochran’s religious liberty, their decision still is a big support for freedom of religion. By enlarging a citizen’s right to free speech, including speech about religious issues, the court essentially upheld the religious rights of US citizens.
As evidenced by the city of Atlanta, many would like to silence traditional Christian views. And yet the court supported Cochran’s right to express his views as a citizen, even though they were unpopular and religious.
In a nation of diverse backgrounds and views, our country needs free expression, particularly when it comes to religious matters. As the United States makes decisions that uphold freedom of religion, our nation will become stronger and more stable. As political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville stated, “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.”
Elizabeth Warner graduated from BYU-Idaho with a Bachelor’s Degree in Marriage and Family Studies. Her favorite thing is being a wife and mother, but she also enjoys writing about the family, exercising, and experimenting with vegetarian recipes.