Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran — the subject of recent controversy over remarks made in a self-published religious book — has been terminated from the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, Mayor Kasim Reed announced today.
Cochran returned to work today following a month-long suspension for comments in his 2013 book “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” Many criticized the book as promoting discriminatory and anti-gay views, while Cochran’s suspension — and now termination — has since become the focus of a fight over “religious liberty.”
The mayor said he decided to terminate Cochran not just because the fire chief didn’t consult him before publishing the book, but also spoke out about his suspension despite being told to remain quiet during the investigation into his leadership. What’s more, Reed said he believes Cochran opened up the city to the potential for litigation over future discrimination claims.
Reed stressed that his decision is not because of Cochran’s faith: “His religious (beliefs) are not the basis of the problem. His judgment is the basis of the problem.”
The mayor said though Cochran consulted the city’s ethics officer before publishing the book, Nina Hickson did not grant approval.
Cochran has a differing account. He said he received verbal clearance from Hickson to publish the book, and therefore didn’t believe he needed permission from Reed as city law allowed it. Hickson could not be reached for immediate comment on Tuesday.
What’s more, Cochran said he gave a copy of the book to Reed’s executive assistant in January 2014, and that the mayor later confirmed receiving it. Cochran also said he was told not to speak to the media, specifically, about his suspension. Cochran has spoken publicly about the matter to religious groups.
Cochran said it was not his intent to be “hurtful to anyone” when expressing his religious views in his book, which he acknowledged passing out to some members of the fire department.
“LGBT citizens deserve the right to express their beliefs regarding sexual orientation, and deserve to be respected for their positions without hate and discrimination,” he said. “But Christians also have the right to express their beliefs regarding sexual orientation and be respected for their position without hate and without discrimination. In the United States, no one should be vilified hated or discriminated against for expressing their beliefs.”
Among what city leaders said were troubling remarks in the fire chief’s book was a description of homosexuality as a “perversion” akin to bestiality and pederasty. Reed said in November that such writings were inconsistent with the city’s employment policies and opened an investigation into potential discrimination within the fire department. The findings of that investigation have not yet been released.
Religious groups have rallied around Cochran, a church deacon at Elizabeth Baptist Church, decrying his punishment as an impingement on religious freedom.
In an “action alert” email sent in December, the coalition’s executive director, Tim Head, said Cochran “has as much right to speak and write about his beliefs as any Atlanta politician does.”
The fire chief also received support from the Georgia Baptist Convention. The organization is asking its members to sign an online petition calling on Reed to apologize to the fire chief, restore lost pay and “acknowledge Chief Cochran’s First Amendment Rights.”
Cochran served as Atlanta’s fire chief under former mayor Shirley Franklin in 2008 and later as President Barack Obama’s U.S. fire administrator.