For 30 years, Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was a firefighter, selflessly serving his community and his country. He even served as the U.S. Fire Administrator under President Barack Obama and led the City of Atlanta to attain the highest level of fire and rescue preparedness for the first time in its history.
But his dream career of serving others came to an abrupt halt in 2015 when the City of Atlanta fired Chief Cochran.
Because he wrote a men’s devotional book in his spare time that briefly mentions his views on a biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality, the City suspended and fired him.
The City even investigated his conduct (which showed he had never discriminated against anyone in the fire department).
All because Chief Cochran wrote about his faith on his own time, he was subjected to a three-year court battle. Thankfully, in 2017, a federal district court recognized that the City of Atlanta’s actions were unconstitutional and the City agreed to settle the case the next year.
During all of this, the Chief’s instinct to protect others never wavered.
On October 12, Chief Cochran is releasing a book detailing his career as a firefighter and his stand for religious freedom.
Chief Cochran Chose His Faith over His Dream Job
At just five years old, Kelvin Cochran knew what he wanted to do with his life.
He was watching T.V. one evening with his brothers and sisters when they heard sirens outside. They opened the door to find their neighbor’s house on fire.
Kelvin watched the firefighters with amazement. And right then and there, he told his family that he wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up.
And he did.
He rose through the ranks, battling racism and discrimination as a young black fireman in the South. Chief Cochran made it all the way to the top of his profession when President Obama appointed him as U.S. Fire Administrator.
Then in 2010, the Mayor of Atlanta begged Kelvin to come back as the city’s fire chief, he did—not knowing that he would soon lose his dream job.
On his own time and on his own dime, he wrote and self-published a devotional for a Christian men’s Bible study. Some people got angry and complained about the book—and about six pages in which Kelvin discusses biblical sexuality and marriage.
And that’s when everything went wrong.
The City of Atlanta suspended him without pay for 30 days and ordered that he participate in “sensitivity training.” They launched an investigation into his conduct. And even though the investigation showed that he had never discriminated against anyone, he was fired at the end of the 30-day suspension.
Facing the Fire
The City of Atlanta tried to pass it off as an ethics violation, saying that a book that Chief Cochran wrote and self-published – on his own time, to support his men's Bible study at church – required the Mayor's permission.
We can all agree that if Chief Cochran had filled the pages of his book with his favorite firehouse recipes, we would not be having this conversation.
"What earned the ire of Atlanta officials is that the 162-page tome includes a few passages criticizing homosexual conduct," a Wall Street Journal article found.
How do we know this? Well, city officials were quite clear when Cochran was suspended that the content of his book put it at odds with the City.
“I want to be clear that the material in Chief Cochran’s book is not representative of my personal beliefs and is inconsistent with the Administration’s work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all of her citizens—regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race and religious beliefs,” said then-Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed.
If the roles had been reversed and a city official fired an employee because they supported same-sex marriage, people would have been outraged.
The City's actions showed quite clearly that they believed Chief Cochran's biblical values and his speech are not only less important than those of people who disagree with the Bible on the topic of sex and marriage, but that he didn’t deserve to keep his job because he holds them.
But faith is not reserved for pastors and chaplains, and the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech doesn’t mean that people may only be faithful or discuss their faith within the walls of their churches.
If the government could punish a distinguished firefighter – a presidential appointee – for living consistently with his faith, what’s stopping them from punishing any one of us?
Chief Cochran could have mourned the loss of his career. He could have retreated. Instead, he took a stand for his rights and the rights of others who simply wish to live according to their faith without fearing government punishment.
That’s why, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys Chief Cochran filed a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta. In 2017, a federal district court ruled that the City had violated Chief Cochran’s religious freedom.
Throughout his career as a firefighter and in his stand for his—and all Americans’—First Amendment freedoms, Chief Cochran proved himself a hero.