Atlanta City Council votes to settle ex-fire chief’s lawsuit
Atlanta’s City Council has voted to pay $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the city’s former fire chief who was dismissed after he wrote a book that included anti-gay passages.
The City Council voted 11-3 Monday to approve the settlement, and it will head to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for her signature. The litigation preceded Bottoms’ administration, but a city spokesman said in an email Tuesday that the city’s legal counsel recommended a settlement to avoid paying millions of taxpayer dollars in damages and legal fees.
Former fire chief Kelvin Cochran sued the city and then-Mayor Kasim Reed over his January 2015 dismissal, saying he was fired because of his religious beliefs.
Cochran in late 2013 self-published a book for men’s Bible study called “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” and gave it to some subordinates at work. The book includes passages that say gay people and those who have sex outside of marriage are “naked,” meaning they are wicked, ungodly sinners.
U.S. District Judge Leigh May ruled in December that the city didn’t retaliate against Cochran in violation of his rights to free speech or free association. She also found that the city didn’t discriminate against Cochran based on his viewpoint or violate his right to free exercise of religion.
But she said rules cited in Cochran’s dismissal that require city employees to get pre-clearance for outside employment could stifle speech unconstitutionally and also failed to define the standards to be used when judging a potential conflict of interest.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Cochran, celebrated the settlement.
“We are very pleased that the city is compensating Chief Cochran as it should, and we hope this will serve as a deterrent to any government that would trample upon the constitutionally protected freedoms of its public servants,” attorney Kevin Theriot, who argued Cochran’s case in court, said in an emailed statement.
After Cochran gave the book to some subordinates, an assistant chief raised concerns in October 2014 about some of its statements on homosexuality, particularly because the book made clear Cochran was Atlanta’s fire chief.
Reed in November 2014 suspended Cochran for 30 days without pay as punishment for selling his book without providing proper notice or getting written approval, city attorneys have said. The city also opened an investigation into whether Cochran had improperly imposed his views at work. City attorneys have said Cochran was told not to comment publicly on his suspension.
But Cochran helped organize a public relations campaign to challenge the suspension, saying he’d been fired for his religious beliefs.
Reed fired Cochran for violating the terms of his suspension by publicly saying he was fired for his religious beliefs, which irreparably damaged his relationship with the mayor, city attorneys have said. The city’s law department also found that while Cochran hadn’t engaged in illegal discrimination, the book’s publication and distribution caused his subordinates to doubt his leadership abilities.
Cochran’s attorneys argued that comments Reed made while Cochran was suspended and when he was fired made it clear that the mayor was retaliating against what he saw as inflammatory ideas presented in the book.
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