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Atlanta accepts $1.2M settlement with Kelvin Cochran

ATLANTA (BP) — The Atlanta city council has agreed to a $1.2 million settlement with former fire chief Kelvin Cochran over his January 2015 termination for his views about marriage and sexuality.

The city council voted 11-3 after an executive session Monday (Oct. 15) during which city attorneys recommended a settlement and legal fees negotiated with the religious liberty organization Alliance Defending Freedom, which has handled Cochran’s court case, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Beyond the city council’s decision, Cochran told Baptist Press on Oct. 17, God has been faithful through what he calls “the fiery trial.”

He has had numerous opportunities to give his testimony in worship services and to speak at men’s meetings and conferences. He also completed a doctorate in interdisciplinary leadership in May through Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

The Atlanta city council decision was celebrated by the Alliance Defending Freedom but bemoaned by the former mayor, Kasim Reed, who had fired Cochran, a highly decorated fire official and former U.S. Fire Administrator under President Obama.

Prompting the settlement was a federal judge’s ruling last December declaring as unconstitutional city requirements that an employee must obtain pre-clearance for publishing a book such as Cochran’s 162-page men’s devotional that included a brief section describing homosexual behavior as immoral.

Federal Judge Leigh Martin May granted summary judgment to Cochran that Atlanta’s pre-clearance rules violated the Constitution’s First Amendment by restraining speech in advance and inviting “unbridled discretion” by the city to approve or deny outside work.

However, Cochran and the Alliance Defending Freedom did not succeed on the other First Amendment claims in the case. May granted summary judgment to the city on Cochran’s claims of freedom of speech retaliation, freedom of association retaliation and viewpoint discrimination. She also refused to agree that Atlanta had violated Cochran’s free exercise of religion.

ADF senior counsel Kevin Theriot stated in a news release, “The government can’t force its employees to get its permission before they engage in free speech. It also can’t fire them for exercising that First Amendment freedom, causing them to lose both their freedom and their livelihoods.”

Theriot said 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.”

The Journal-Constitution reported that the city had “concluded that a federal court ruling in the case from December left taxpayers exposed to an even larger payout if they didn’t settle with Cochran.”

A spokesperson for Atlanta’s current mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, was quoted as saying, “The comments of Kelvin Cochran were not reflective of who Atlanta is as a tolerant and inclusive city…. [B]ased upon findings of the Court that could have resulted in taxpayers paying millions of dollars in damages and litigation fees, a negotiated settlement was recommended by legal counsel.”

A city investigation under Reed had found no evidence of discrimination by Cochran in directing the fire department. Cochran, in comments to Baptist Press in November 2017, said he created the Atlanta Fire Rescue Doctrine to establish “a culture of justice and equity” and to seek to remove “racism, sexism, favoritism, cronyism, anything that would interfere with a wholesome work environment for any people group within the fire department.”

Reed, in a statement to the newspaper, nevertheless voiced his disapproval of the settlement.

“I believed, and continue to believe, that his actions, decisions, and lack of judgment undermined his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse workforce,” Reed said. “At a time when civil rights, human rights and inclusion are under attack both locally and nationally, this decision sends the wrong message to individuals in the LGBTQ community and to all Atlantans.”

Cochran is now the chief operating officer at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Atlanta, a Southern Baptist congregation. The men’s devotional book he wrote, available online from Amazon, is titled “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” from God’s question to Adam in the Garden of Eden.

The overall theme is helping men overcome condemnation, Cochran said, whereas the media portrays it as “anti-gay,” narrowing in on a brief section of the book from Galatians 5:19-20 in listing the works of the flesh.

Cochran told Baptist Press of “five things that I have learned in my experience” from “people that we hold dear in the Bible that have gone through persecution.”

“The first one is, God always prepares His children to face persecution…. We wouldn’t be going through it if He hadn’t drawn the conclusion that we were ready.

“Number two is the hardest of the five things, and that is, there are worldly consequences for standing on biblical truth and standing for Christ.

“Number three, there are Kingdom consequences … [that] are always greater than the worldly consequences.

“The fourth thing is that when we endure persecution, God is glorified on a greater scale.

“And the fifth thing I’ve learned is that when we have the courage and faith to stand, a life of blessings escalates ‘exceedingly, abundantly above all we could ever ask or think,'” he said, citing Ephesians 3:20 in the New Testament.

Cochran was a member of the SBC Resolutions Committee in 2016, presenting to the convention a resolution affirming Southern Baptists’ commitment to biblical sexuality and urging the protection of religious free exercise.

The resolution stated in part, “Experience and recent history have shown that when the government redefines marriage as anything other than between a man and a woman, the police power of the state is brought to bear to enforce that redefinition, resulting in an inevitable collision with religious freedom and conscience rights.”