by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.
February 18, 2015
Today, Chief Cochran filed a complaint in federal court initiating a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta and Mayor Reed for firing him for holding Christian beliefs.
While we are all familiar with the background on Chief Cochran, and the City of Atlanta’s disappointing attempts to defend itself, the complaint reveals quite a compelling picture of Chief Cochran’s experience of religious discrimination.
It shows how Chief Cochran was motivated to excellence by firefighters who saved his house when he was growing up in a poor, single-parent family in Shreveport, Louisiana. From that point, he worked hard, guided by faith, to achieve excellence in what he did.
Chief Cochran had an exemplary career, going on to conduct firefighter training, lead Shreveport’s fire department, then lead Atlanta’s fire department, and finally head the U.S. Fire Administration in Washington, before returning to take charge of Atlanta’s fire department only after Mayor Reed himself “begged” him to come back to Atlanta.
The complaint continues by observing that Chief Cochran was awarded Fire Chief of the Year by Fire Chief magazine in 2012, for which he was showered with praise from Mayor Reed. And under Chief Cochran’s tenure, for the first time in Atlanta’s history, the Insurance Services Office gave the city a Class 1 Public Protection Classification (PPC) rating, an honor shared by only 60 cities nationwide, which resulted in lower insurance premiums.
In addition, as he explains, the chief promoted the development of workplace policies ensuring all his firefighters were treated fairly, and worked with LGBT employees (who he knew were LGBT) to make this happen. More than most, Chief Cochran knows what it’s like to be excluded; he had to overcome racial hostility earlier in his career.
Despite all this, when some protested Chief Cochran’s self-published Christian book, which had been in print for almost a year with no complaints, the city immediately suspended the chief without even discussing the matter with him beforehand. The book, which is about how to live for God, mentions human sexuality only in passing.
As described in his complaint, when the chief was suspended, the mayor explicitly distanced himself from Chief Cochran’s “beliefs” — thus revealing it is his religious beliefs which are the real problem here.
Yet the city is prohibited from firing Chief Cochran based on his religious beliefs. If Chief Cochran can prove that his beliefs were the reason he was fired, he will likely emerge victorious.
The chief will have plenty of avenues to prove the religious discrimination against him, having brought claims under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause for retaliation based on protected religious speech, along with allegations of viewpoint discrimination, over-breadth, prior restraint /unbridled discretion, and unconstitutional conditions. He follows these up with claims under the No Religious Tests Clause of Article VI of the Constitution, Free Exercise and Freedom of Association protections of the First Amendment, and an Establishment Clause claim based on hostility towards religion. Chief Cochran next alleges a Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection violation based on unequal treatment based on his beliefs, and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process violations based on vagueness and deprivation of his liberty interests and procedural due process rights. He also plans on amending his complaint to include a Title VII religious discrimination claim at the appropriate time.
As a remedy, the chief asks to be reinstated in his job, that the city be prevented from taking such action against others, and that it admit it violated his rights here, in addition to other damages.
While his case is procedurally in the beginning stage, Chief Cochran’s complaint certainly paints a strong picture in support of his claims. Why would any mayor want to fire a man with his performance and history as a firefighter? They wouldn’t.
This part of the factual record — much of which is not disputable — makes it look like the chief was fired for the impermissible reasons described in his complaint. In addition, Chief Cochran paints a picture of how the city did not even follow proper procedures in terminating him.
Mayor Reed himself “begged” Chief Cochran to come back to Atlanta, and any mayor with a large fire department to run would want a man like the chief running it.
When this type of employee is fired, a reasonable observer is more likely to conclude they were fired for an impermissible reason — in this case, for their religious expression.