HR Minute

Atlanta Fire Chief Fires-Off Lawsuit and EEOC Charge Against the City of Atlanta for Freedom of Speech Religious Discrimination

binoculars iconAs many in Georgia have heard, Atlanta’s former fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, was ousted from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration in early January for what the Mayor said was a breach in protocol in Cochran’s decision to publish a religious book about his Christian faith titled, “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” At issue are passages describing homosexuality as a “sexual perversion” akin to bestiality. Cochran filed a lawsuit in February claiming that his termination was for expressing his religious beliefs after work. Was this freedom of speech or a legitimate termination for offensive anti-gay speech?

Background Facts

Cochran became the Fire Chief of the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department (AFRD) in 2010. By all accounts, Cochran was a good performer. Cochran, who is an evangelical Christian, published a book titled, “Who Told You That You Were Naked,” a Bible study-style text that covers a range of Cochran’s personal religious beliefs. In one section of the book, Cochran called “homosexuality” and “lesbianism” a “sexual perversion” morally equivalent to “pederasty” and “bestiality.” Cochran claims that he sought the permission of Nina Hickson, the City of Atlanta Ethics Officer, before publishing the book. He says he was told that “so long as the subject matter of the book is not the city government or fire department he could write the book.” Cochran distributed this book to several Atlanta fire employees. The city claimed that he distributed the book to nine employees, and that three of those distributions were unsolicited.

The city conducted an investigation to determine (1) whether publication of the book Who Told You That You Were Naked, by Cochran had been authorized; (2) whether and to what extent the book had been distributed in the workplace; and (3) if there was any indication that Cochran allowed his beliefs, as expressed in the book, to influence his disciplinary decisions.

The investigation found that Mayor Reed had not authorized the book and that Ethics Officer Hickson told Cochran that he needed to get Reed’s authorization. The investigation also found that Cochran had distributed his book to some employees. The investigation did not find that Cochran’s beliefs influenced disciplinary decisions, but based on interviews with multiple city employees, the city’s report concluded that “there was a consistent sentiment among the witnesses that firefighters throughout the organization are appalled by the sentiments expressed in the book. There also is general agreement the contents of the book have eroded trust and have compromised the ability of the chief to provide leadership in the future.”

The city had suspended Cochran in November, while it conducted an investigation into whether the book’s message violated the city’s non-discrimination policy. The City claims that during the investigation Cochran was discussing the investigation with the public, which he was allegedly told not to do. On January 5, 2015, after the city investigation concluded, Mayor Reed terminated Cochran’s employment. Atlanta Mayor Reed said in January that Cochran’s firing was over his “judgment and management skills,” and that “Cochran’s personal religious beliefs are not the issue.”

On February 18, 2015, Cochran filed a lawsuit against Mayor Reed and the City of Atlanta claiming that his termination was a violation of his constitutional right to free speech and that the city was attempting to censor religious expression. Cochran also filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming religious discrimination.

The Lawsuit

Cochran’s lawsuit has nine different causes of action. The first claim is that the city retaliated against Cochran because of his religious expression and deprived him of his First Amendment right to freely express his beliefs about issues of public concern that are unrelated to his job. Cochran also claims that the City’s termination of his employment violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment by terminating him over his viewpoint and his exercise of religion. Cochran also claims the City showed hostility toward his religion and violated his rights to equal protection and due process.

Cochran is requesting among other things a permanent injunction against the City to prevent the City from enforcing policies that violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments, reinstatement, compensatory damages as well as attorneys’ fees.

This lawsuit does not contain the Cochran’s religious discrimination claim pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That claim is pending with the EEOC.

Bottom Line

This case involves interesting issues on how far government and private employers can limit, restrict or interfere with personal conduct and viewpoints. This topic is very sensitive and emotional to many people in Georgia because it pits the religious beliefs (of some people) against the civil rights of others such as gays in the workforce. While private employers do not have constitutional obligations to provide due process and equal protection like the government, they are not permitted to discriminate based on certain protected classes, like religion. What is interesting about this issue is that if a private employer allows a manager to vocally express his or her religious belief regarding same-sex relationships, then the employer could be creating a potential hostile work environment (or uncomfortable work environment) for gay employees. What if the expressed religious beliefs were derogatory towards women? Whose rights take priority? At which point does private beliefs and expression of such affect the workplace? As with other personal conduct that may permeate the workplace, Employers should address these types of situations on a case-by-case basis. Factors such as employee rank, forum, purpose, manner and nature of the allegedly offensive communication, manner in which other employees may have learned of the communication all matter in the analysis of whether an employer can or should take action on an employee’s expression of personal beliefs. And given the high profile of religion in today’s world, employers should contact their employment attorneys before making a determination to take an adverse employment action based on the expression of a religious belief.

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